Docs skeptical, but salt-therapy fans say treatment helps breathing, other ills

April 20, 2015

ORLANDO, Fla. ó Dianne Duvall lay in a recliner, the room awash in dim blue light, and took breath after breath of salty air.

Around her, the walls were lined with of chunks of salt. Beneath her, the floor was covered with salt pebbles.

Duvall is a customer at a new kind of spa that proponents say relieves ailments from emphysema to psoriasis. Itís called halotherapy, or salt therapy.

"Very peaceful, very serene, and you can feel itís drying you up so that you cannot have a runny nose," said Duvall, a real-estate agent who suffers from allergies.

While many customers such as Duvall swear by salt therapy, the medical community is not sold on it.

Dr. Norman Edelman, senior scientific adviser to the American Lung Association, said the salt particles in therapy rooms are too big to be inhaled deeply into the lungs, but breathing them does loosen mucus and promote coughing, which may make some patients feel better.

He said he doesnít recommend the therapy or think it helps a lot of people. Nor is it regulated or covered by health insurance. A single 45-minute session is $49 for an adult at The Salt Scene, where Duvall goes, and $45 at The Salt Room, although both offer packages and memberships.

"In anything we do in medicine, there is always a huge placebo effect, especially in asthma," said Edelman, a professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine who specializes in internal and pulmonary medicine.

There are three salt spas in the Orlando area. The newest is The Salt Scene, which opened in July.

Owner Rupal Thakkar began taking her then-toddler daughter to The Salt Room in Orlando about four years ago. Her pediatrician was skeptical, but Thakkar was so impressed with the improvement in her daughterís eczema that she decided to open her own salt-therapy business closer to home.

"Instead of having her on meds for a lifetime, Iím able to control her symptoms," said Thakkar, a dentist who maintains a dental practice in the same shopping center as The Salt Scene.

The healing power of salt was touted centuries ago in Greece and at the Dead Sea. The modern salt spa became possible when a machine to crush and disperse salt particles was invented in 1985 in Russia, where doctors used it to treat respiratory conditions, said ‹lle Pukk, co-founder of the Salt Therapy Association in Boca Raton.

In the U.S., one of the first salt spas was built in the Chicago suburb of Skokie in 2006, owner Isabella Samovsky said. The U.S. has more than 125 salt-therapy businesses, according to the Salt Therapy Association. Salt rooms also can be found in Eastern Europe, Israel, Canada and Australia and on two Norwegian Cruise Lines ships, including the Getaway, which began sailing out of Miami last year.

The salt-therapy experience is meant to mimic the environment of salt caves, only with considerably more modern spa amenities and a New Age vibe.

During a salt-room session, a client reclines, feet elevated, in a "zero-gravity" chair designed to reduce stress on the spine and impart a sense of weightlessness.

A generator pulverizes pharmaceutical-grade salt, blowing tiny particles into the room, said Ashley Steiner, a former third-grade teacher who owns The Salt Room, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

Some people read, meditate or doze, while others listen to soothing music. Many prefer subdued lighting.

"Salt is antibacterial and antimicrobial, and it helps open the airways and reduce any congestion," said Steiner, who is on the board of the Salt Therapy Association.

Although scant studies have examined the practice, the New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 concluded that inhaling saline can improve lung function in people with cystic fibrosis.

Retired speech pathologist Nancy Stone has gone to The Salt Room for several years to get relief from her cystic fibrosis.

"I can take deeper breaths, and it helps me cough," Stone said. "Itís such an uplifting place, and the people here are so positive."

Kristine Osborne said her 4-year-old daughter, Stella, had recurrent ear infections before she started going to The Salt Room about a year ago. On a recent day Stella cooked pretend chicken soup on a play stove, colored and dug in the salt in the childrenís room.

"It worked beautifully," Osborne said. "To have your child not be sick, you canít put a dollar value on that."

Dr. Neil Kao, an internist, allergist and immunologist who teaches at the University of South Carolina, said heís unaware of any benefit ó or harm ó from salt rooms, although he said heís not sure why soaking in an Epsom-salt bath or relaxing at the beach wouldnít have a similar effect at a much lower cost.

"Even if youíre going in there pessimistically, sitting in a comfortable chair in a very quiet room is probably very calming," Kao said.



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