Sulphur spring spas have pain- and inflammation-reducing benefits

Hamburg - Bursa in western Turkey, Monticelli outside the gates of Parma, Italy, and Digne-les-Bains in southern France have something in common.

They are the locations of sulphur springs, which promise vacationers a particularly healthy experience. Sulphur usually is employed today in the form of thermal baths. The beneficial, pain-killing and anti-inflammatory effects on the body are due to many factors.

"As with all thermal baths, the warmth of the water has an initial effect," said Wolfgang Brueckle, chief physician of a German rheumatism clinic. The warming effect of the water is increased through the hydrogen sulphide. This is clearly visible in the reddening of the skin."

The muscles throughout the entire body relax and the body's connective tissue is more flexible. The blood vessels widen, the pulse and metabolism increase. Blood flow to the skin increases, which leads to an improvement in the absorption of oxygen and minerals. Sulphide enters the blood through the skin, and where needed, it contributes to the healing process, inhibits some joint inflammation or helps in the reconstruction of articular cartilage.

Thermal sulphur baths are well-suited for the treatment of illnesses of the musculoskeletal system, Brueckle said.

"We see very good success in patients with degenerative joint and spine illnesses, including spinal disc problems, Bekhterev's disease, inflammatory rheumatic diseases and muscle pain," he said. In addition, thermal sulphur baths are successfully used in the treatment of eczema and neurodermatitis.

Sulphur baths are generally prescribed as part of a visit to a spa. Of the 154 health resorts in Germany that are recognized as official spas, there are 31 with sulphur springs. Each sulphur spring is unique in its composition - sulphur content differs from spring to spring. But the water must contain a minimum of one gram of sulphur per litre. Otherwise, it cannot be designated as a mineral spring.

"But these factors should not be overestimated when weighed against other effectiveness factors," said professor Juergen Kleinschmidt of a German institute for health and rehabilitation science at Munich University. "Knowledge of how to employ sulphur springs and other factors at a spa are more important than the quantity of sulphur."

Spa specialists also are skeptical of the medicinal benefits of a single visit to a thermal spa while on vacation or at home in the bathtub. Kleinschmidt said these are at best brief wellness experiences that provide only an introduction.

Wherever a sulphur bath takes place, it should last 10 to 20 minutes in water warmed to 37 to 39 degrees centigrade, said Guenter Till, a member of the expert advisory committee on spas and thermal springs of the German wellness association in Duesseldorf. A hot shower follows the bath so that the pores open widely and the unpleasant sulphur smell dissipates.

The body feels heavy, and because bathing in a thermal sulphur spring puts quite a strain on the heart and on circulation, the usual practice is to take a long rest afterward. (dpa)