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For centuries, Europeans have sought treatment for their ailments by “taking the waters” in towns and villages built around thermal springs. Traditional Turkish hammams use steam to melt away aches and pains, while ancient Ayurvedic and acupuncture practices are said to ease health conditions, even today.
In North America, too, that division is disappearing, as more and more consumers embrace health and wellness beyond their doctors’ offices — especially since the global pandemic hit. Canadian spas are expanding their repertoire by adding specialized treatments for allergies, rheumatism, osteoarthritis, stress and even cancer. According to the Ontario Blue Cross, a provincial insurance agency, there is growing evidence that doctors are coming on board, often prescribing massage therapy to individuals with injuries, illnesses and chronic health conditions.
Allison Hegedus, president of Vida Spas (which has three locations in B.C.) says, “Prior to the pandemic, and now during the pandemic, we have seen an increased focus on self-care awareness and the benefit of stress reduction through touch therapy. Health professionals, including doctors, nurses and physiotherapists, are increasingly recommending spa therapies to their patients, [as] part of the overall goal of continued health and wellness.”
his trend was growing even before COVID-19. “Alternative treatments are playing an increasingly important role in Canadians’ overall health care,” says Nadeem Esmail, co-author of a study by the Frasier Institute, which found that 79 percent of adult Canadians tried at least one form of complementary or alternative medicine in 2016; spending was an estimated $8.8 billion in the first half of the year (an increase of nearly $1 billion since 2006).
In 2015, the American College of Physicians showed its support by putting out new guidelines for lower back pain that recommended non-invasive, alternative approaches like acupuncture, massage, exercise, tai chi, heat wraps and mindfulness/yoga, before prescribing drugs as the last resort.
The importance of training
Vida’s founder and education director, Colleen Fraser explains that the spas’ therapists are specially trained in treating clients with debilitating conditions like temporal mandibular joint disorder, cancer, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, plantar fascia, stroke, whiplash and stress, for which massage is one of the more popular treatment modalities.
Massage therapy treatment from a registered massage therapist can treat clients who present with symptoms related to back and neck pain, sports injuries, epilepsy, headaches, whiplash and many other common issues. It is also an effective form of treatment for other conditions, such as anxiety, depression, stress and even some diseases, such as cancer, stroke and arthritis.
“If a spa client has any of these conditions and is looking for a relaxing and restorative treatment, a spa therapist can help soothe the client just by working indirectly through the benefits of a full-body massage,” Fraser notes, adding that therapists must be cautious when treating clients with health issues. “All Vida spa therapists avoid massage therapy directly over known tumors and sites where metastasis may be predicted. Caution is exercised in patients with boney metastases, who may be prone to fracture. Currently, no evidence indicates that massage promotes tumor metastasis.” Guests to the Vida spas must complete an updated medical history form to ensure the therapist is aware of underlying or existing conditions or concerns.
In B.C., massage therapists are required to have a minimum of 750 hours of insurable training. “Their education includes a variety of techniques to assist relaxation of nervous system, mobility of tissues around joints, assist the drainage of fluids and improve overall circulation and well-being,” Fraser explains.
She cautions that while they are not able to work on specific health conditions, “skilled hands with Swedish techniques can effectively ease tension or reduce swelling. Clients who have underlying or existing health conditions tend to find peace of mind through the talent, passion and care of our Vida team.”
The spa’s intense hiring process leaves no stone unturned, even going so far as testing candidates for personal self-care routines and balance. “Do they make outdoor activities, healthy food choices, exercise and yoga important pillars for health? Through experience, we have found that a therapist who is balanced in mind and body has further impact on our guests,” Fraser says.
Once hired, additional training in protocol, risk management and hygiene practices are completed at Vida prior to servicing the first guest.
Fifty hours of training in Ayurvedic philosophy and skills is offered to all therapists at Vida spas, including hands-on techniques. “It is vital knowledge for living in balance,” says Fraser. “Ayurveda teaches us preventative ways to live with a calm heart, good sleep, clarity of mind, strong body and agile digestion. Vida therapists learn about Ayurvedic healing properties, stress relief, aids in water loss, how it balances hormones, reduces inflation, removes toxins, reduces risk of disease, helps insomnia and benefits overall health. The therapeutic benefits on various conditions is endless.”
Outside of the internal Ayurveda and hydrotherapy courses at Vida, additional post-graduate training courses are offered through national massage associations and schools like the Natural Health Practitioners of Canada.
Treatments That Ease Disease
Last year, Toronto-based Hammam Spa introduced Decléor to its in-house boutique. The leading aromatherapy and phytotherapy natural skincare treatment is based on essential oils and plant extracts. Some aromatherapy oils have been shown to reduce blood pressure and act as effective sleep aids. A small randomized pilot study of hospital patients in 2014 found that 100 percent pure lavender oil at the bedside was associated with lower blood pressure and a slightly higher sleep score – with researchers concluding lavender aromatherapy may be an effective sleep aid. Another study concluded that the use of peppermint aromatherapy in conjunction with controlled breathing aided in relieving nausea.
Many spas incorporate Ayurvedic techniques, originating in a holistic system of medicine from India that guides lifestyle choices to maintain well-being and help those with health challenges. The scientific community has paid close attention to this 5,000-year-old practice. At Ohio University, preliminary studies showed Ayurveda had positive effects on depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, hypertension, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. A Norwegian study exploring Ayurveda’s impact on fibromyalgia patients found that combining diet, herbal foods and meditation improved pain, fatigue, anxiety and depression.
Balneotherapy and Hydrotherapy
Natural thermal and mineral waters, like those that are readily found in western Canada, have been used for healing over thousands of years. A 2017 study from Australia’s RMIT University found that bathing in hot springs provides significant relief for severe back pain, arthritis, injury, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and insomnia. Unlike hydrotherapy, which covers any type of water intervention, balneotherapy is specific to the use of thermal water and waters with minerals and other organic elements. Balneotherapy is offered by spas like those belonging to Groupe Nordik and Temple Gardens in Saskatchewan, which boasts prairie-inspired spa treatments and the largest therapeutic geothermal mineral pool in Canada. Numerous studies have shown that salt mineral baths and hot mud packs can significantly reduce pain and stiffness from arthritis, chronic pain, nervous disorders, cardiac and respiratory disease, with uses in immunology, dermatology, sports medicine and even veterinary care.
Manual Lymph Draining
Wherever massage is listed on the spa menu, you’ll often find a therapist that specializes in lymphatic massage, which uses slow, light and repetitive strokes to help move lymph fluid through the system of vessels and nodes. Clients with cancer, tuberculosis, thrombosis and phlebitis, hyperthyroidism, acute inflammation and blood pressure issues should consult their doctor or therapist before lymphatic drainage body massage. After reviewing a body of medical evidence, the University of Alberta concluded that for breast cancer patients, a statistically significant benefit comes from adding manual lymph drainage massage to compression therapy for reducing upper extremity lymphedema.
By using direct, hands-on manipulation of the body surface to achieve therapeutic results, massage can focus on specific types of injury treatment, stress reduction or release of muscle tension, and it can boost range of motion, improve circulation and mental well-being, help with sleep disturbance and reduce pain in clients with many conditions, such as cancer, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, stroke and headaches. A small study from McMaster University in 2012 found that a 10-minute massage reduced the production of cytokines, which play a critical role in inflammation – and stimulated mitochondria, which convert glucose into energy for cell function and repair.
The core essence of Canadian spas is their ability to immerse clients in tranquility and beauty, blending lush surroundings with techniques that promote stress relief, the elimination of tension and a peaceful state of mind, using modalities like progressive or cue-controlled relaxation, breathing exercises, guided imagery/visualization, biofeedback, water therapy and colour therapy. Scientists at the University of South Florida found that stress reduction could extend cell longevity.
Among the restorative wellness classes at Ste. Anne’s Spa in Ontario, yoga nidra or “yogic sleep” is a favourite. A form of yoga without movement, it deeply integrates the body, mind and spirit through relaxation, affirmation (Sankalpa), breathing and visualization. Among a range of yogic practices first described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written thousands of years ago, pranayama breathing has been shown by several studies, some of which used magnetic resonance imaging, to reduce anxiety and trigger positive changes in the brain. Last year, a study by Harvard Medical School showed that Kundalini yoga significantly reduces anxiety disorder. Other recent studies showed its positive impact on migraine sufferers, sleep quality, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, memory and depression.
Taking full advantage of lush treed surroundings, Scandinave Spa in Blue Mountain, Ontario, recently added forest bathing to its repertoire. Not simply a walk in the woods, it is the conscious and contemplative practice of being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. Researchers, primarily in Japan and South Korea, have established a growing body of scientific literature on the diverse health benefits, such as lowered pulse rate, blood pressure and cortisol, and reduced anxiety and depression.