Content uploaded by Astrid van Tubergen
All content in this area was uploaded by Astrid van Tubergen
Content may be subject to copyright.
A brief history of spa therapy
A van Tubergen, S van der Linden
Ann Rheum Dis
Bathing in thermal water has an impressive history and
continuing popularity. In this paper a brief overview of the
use of water in medicine over the centuries is given.
he word “spa” may be derived from the Walloon word
“espa” meaning fountain.
This, in turn, came from the
name of the Belgian town Spa, where in the 14th century
a curative, thermal spring was discovered. Spa may also origi-
nate from the Latin word “spagere” (to scatter, sprinkle, mois-
ten) or may be an acronym of the Latin phrase “sanitas per
aquas” (health through water).
In Britain, the word spa is still
used, whereas in the rest of Europe the term “thermal waters”
is prefer red. Bathing in thermal water for therapeutic
purposes has several descriptions (for example, taking the
waters, balneotherapy, spa therapy, hydrotherapy), which will
all be used throughout this paper, and are more or less inter-
ANCIENT GREECE AND THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Taking the waters used to be a popular treatment for a wide
range of diseases in classical times. The Greeks preferred baths
in fresh water from natural resources, although bathing in the
sea (thalassotherapy) was also applied. Initially, bathing was
conﬁned to the more wealthy people in private baths, but soon
public baths were opened. The baths were considered sacred
places and were dedicated to several deities.
In Homeric times, bathing was primarily used for cleansing
and hygienic purposes. By the time of Hippocrates (460–370
BC), bathing was considered more than a simple hygienic
measure; it was healthy and beneﬁcial for most diseases.
Hippocrates proposed the hypothesis that the cause of all dis-
eases lay in an imbalance of the bodily ﬂuids. To regain the
balance a change of habits and environment was advised,
which included bathing, perspiration, walking, and
The baths were often combined with sports and
education, the precursors of the gymnasium.
Inﬂuenced by the Greeks, the Romans built their own ther-
mal baths at mineral and thermal springs. A military presence
was often the key to development of such a spa resort.
served not only for recuperation of wounded soldiers but also
as rest and recreation centres for healthy soldiers. In contrast
with the Greeks, who took the waters after intensive physical
exercises, the Romans considered the baths more important
than the gymnastics alone.
Besides cleansing, exercises,
socialising, relaxation, and worship, medical treatment was
also applied extensively. Spa treatment consisted of applica-
tion of water to afﬂicted parts of the body, immersion of the
whole body in the water (especially for rheumatic and
urogenital diseases), and drinking excessive quantities of
Asclepiades (c 124 BC), a Greek physician who practised in
Rome, introduced general hydrotherapy and dr inking cures as
He recommended bathing for both therapeutic
and preventative purposes. Pliny the Elder (
AD 23–79) assigned
different properties and indications for cure to different types
Galen (AD 131–201) also advocated the use of
water for the treatment of a variety of diseases.
cold water, a concept that was reconsidered periodically
throughout the following ages.
In Rome three different types of baths developed: baths at
home (balnea), private baths (balnea privata), and public
baths (balnea publica) that were run by the state.
introduction of aqueducts, the public baths later developed
into huge and impressive ediﬁces (thermae) with a capacity
for thousands of people. During the heyday of the Roman
bathing culture, the inhabitants of Rome used 1400 litres of
water per person per day, mainly for bathing.
legions, far away from their homeland, built their own baths at
mineral and thermal springs in the newly conquered lands.
Examples are found all over Europe.
Throughout the years the Roman bathing culture gradually
changed towards a place for relaxation and pleasure, rather
than for medical treatment, although this was still provided.
The Romans preferred to use the baths and very hot waters for
renewing their appetites and thirst, and the baths became,
rather, centres for various sexual practices.
morals became manifest, the hygienic and medical indications
for bathing disappeared, and baths as a haunt for pleasure
THE DARK AND MIDDLE AGES
With the f all of the Roman Empire in 476 and the rise of
Christianity, the bathing culture fell into disrepute and bath-
ing was ofﬁcially prohibited. Faith in cure through worship
and praying was regarded as more important than a medicinal
Baths were redeveloped as churches, although some
remained available for the aristocrats who were not affected
by the church’s decrees.
The aversion to bathing remained for
many centuries. People abstained from bathing as long as pos-
sible, sometimes for years.
“People abstained from bathing, sometimes for years”
From the 13th century onwards, baths gradually came into
re-use, particularly in southern Europe under the inﬂuence of
the Moors. Public baths were rebuilt and the entrance was
usually free. The baths were often crowded and people bathed
for hours, sometimes days in the same bath. Blood letting,
enemas, and drinking cures (up to 10 litres a day) were
prescribed, although relaxation and pleasure were most often
the reasons for bathing.
In the 16th century the image of the public baths again dete-
riorated in many countries, which led to the closure of many
public baths. They were considered to be a source of
contagious diseases such as syphilis, plague, and leprosy, and
the baths became dangerous meeting places for political and
In addition, owing to a shortage of
ﬁrewood, public baths became more expensive for a popula-
tion that had already become impoverished by many wars.
Nevertheless, the gentry continued to visit the baths, although
they preferred to go to baths from natural sources with warm,
mineral water instead of the public baths.
Taking the waters was now no longer a spontaneous activ-
ity, but it was increasingly prescribed under medical
Several famous Italian doctors recovered lost texts
on medical treatment from the ancient world, and the value of
balneology as a therapeutic modality was reconsidered.
this time, the ﬁrst attempts to analyse the waters for their
mineral components were made, although the results were
It was equally important to recognise the
quality of each mineral and its effect on the body, as to know
which parts of the body might be inﬂuenced by taking the
In 1553 an encyclopaedic work, De balneis omniae qua
extant, was published, containing an overview of ancient and
moder n literature on the use of medicinal water. In 1571, Bacci
published De thermis, in which he taught the art of the baths
from Galen and the Aristotelians. According to Bacci, taking
the waters was not a m atter of empiricism, but a sound disci-
pline with its own rationale, institutes, and doctrine, which
the learned physician alone was qualiﬁed to understand.
Minardo published in 1594 a compendium on the two baths of
Caldiero in Verona. The ﬁrst bath was used for drinking and
bathing, the second was used by bathers with skin conditions,
for bathing of animals, and for washing off therapeutic mud.
Seventy eight conditions that might beneﬁt from these baths
were listed. The treatments consisted of drinking cures, bath-
ing, purging, and application of mud. It was advised to follow
this type of treatment for 15 days, and repeat it every year.
According to Bacci, essential to the cure was a quiet orderly life
in pleasant surroundings with good food and wine, and a
maximum of comfort.
Therefore, he argued, the baths would
do no good to the poor. Other, practical obstacles also
restrained the poor from attending the baths: they had no
time for leisure and the baths and mud were usually not
The new bathing culture that had developed in Italy gradu-
ally spread over other parts of Europe, and was particularly
popular with the elite. The development of spa treatment
north of the Alps was mainly provided by the Paracelsians.
the turn of the 17th century, many spas were rediscovered in
France. Two types of spas existed: hot springs for dr inking and
bathing, and cold springs for drinking cures only.
waters in French spas was a serious activity and quite sober.
Doctors created centres for treatment, not for leisure. Much
attention was paid to purging, drinking cures, eating well bal-
anced diets, and bathing. In the afternoons some indoor
leisure activities were provided. Late in the afternoon, people
walked about on the promenade, and went to bed early in the
This was in contrast with many other European
countries, where in the evenings diverse leisure activities were
offered such as theatre and dance.
19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES
Around 1800 interest in the bathing culture grew. Further
attempts to analyse the mineral water were made, aiming at
improving its use in medicine, and at preparing mixtures of
water identical to those mineral waters famous for their cura-
Doctors were convinced that for each disease
Mother Nature possessed an appropriate medicinal spring,
which could be discovered through chemical analysis of the
Priessnitz and Kneipp further developed the princi-
ples of balneotherapy (medicinal use of thermal water) and
hydrotherapy (immersion of the body in thermal water for
Individual treatments were pre-
scribed, based on the composition and temperature of the
water. Also, combinations of treatments were developed
consisting of hot and cold baths, herbal baths, mud packs,
active physical exercises, massages, and diets. Kneipp advo-
cated a holistic approach to the treatment of a disease.
contrast with the spa resorts, which aimed at the elite, Kneipp
directed his attentions to the common man.
The use of mineral waters and the development of hotels
and guesthouses at the springs became prevalent throughout
Europe and North America.
Every spa resort had its own
theatre, casino, and promenades besides the bathing build-
ings. In Britain, Germany, Austria, and Belgium much import-
ance was attached to ostentation. Grand hotels arose with
casinos and dancing establishments surrounding the spa
resorts. The spa resorts became not only a m eeting centre for
the elite but also a place of creativity for painters, writer s, and
The baths were again crowded. Baden Baden
(Ger many) became the most glamorous resort in continental
Europe. It was the place to see and to be seen.
“The medical significance of bathing is acknowledged
by many rheumatologists”
However, in Britain use of the spa declined. The English spa
resorts were run by amateurs, and the medical hydrology was
The resorts aimed more at pleasure,
rather than medical treatment, and were exploited by estate
developers with commercial interests.
seaside and foreign resorts, and an economic depression in the
1930s led to a further decline. Eventually, spa therapy was
excluded from the National Health Service, which meant that
many spa resorts in Britain closed down.
After the second world war and with the rise in welfare, spa
treatment became available for the common man in many
European countries, mainly owing to reimbursement by state
Other activities and new treatments were
introduced, and balneology, hydrotherapy, and physiotherapy
underwent major developments.
In the past decades, a large change in the use of mineral
water for the treatment of several diseases has taken place in
The medical signiﬁcance of bathing is
now acknowledged, especially by many rheumatologists and
der matologists, and this aspect is considered more important
for a number of spa resorts than prestige and leisure. Bathing
is usually combined with many other treatments, such as
physical exercises, hydrotherapy, and mud packs. The spa
resorts are differentiated according to their location (for
example, seaside, mountain area) and the chemical composi-
tion of their mineral water (for example, sulphurous, bicarbo-
nated, or sulphated).
Each spring has its own characteris-
tics and related therapeutic properties.
substantial number of spa resorts also direct more attention
towards leisure. Steam baths, saunas, whirlpools, and solari-
ums are standard equipment of many such spa resorts, with
the main objective being to relax and strengthen the body and
mind, and to prevent development of disease. In Britain, a
revival of the spa culture may be expected, with the re-opening
of the hot springs in Bath in 2002. This spa will offer facilities
for medical treatment, but, in addition cater for a growing
number of so-called health tourists, who combine their
holidays with an investment in wellbeing.
SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE FOR THE EFFICACY OF SPA
Despite the popularity of spa therapy, reported scientiﬁc
evidence for its efﬁcacy is sparse. A decade ago, Heywood
reviewed well documented records on spa treatment for lead
poisoning in the 18th and 19th century in Bath.
occur ring as a result of chronic lead intoxication (colica
pictonum) was a common problem in those days owing to the
widespread use of lead in household ware, cosmetics, food
colorants, wine, and salts for medicinal use. Already at the
beginning of the 16th century, Bath was famous for curing
paralysis, even in those patients who were regarded as incur-
able. The treatment consisted of bathing, drinking cures, diet,
274 van Tubergen, van der Linden
and purges. Patients admitted to the Bath Hospital came from
all over England, and often had already been treated for their
paralysis elsewhere, without success. However, many of these
presumed incurable patients were cured after their (months)
stay in Bath.
An example can be found in the comparison of medical
records of Bath and Exeter Hospitals between 1762 and
During these ﬁve years, 285 patients with colica
pictonum were admitted in Exeter and 281 patients in Bath.
Seventy three per cent of the patients from Exeter were cured
or improved, whereas the ﬁgure was 93% from Bath. Moreover,
the group in Bath included some 80 patients referred from
Exeter who had not been cured by treatment in Exeter.
1760 to 1879, 3377 patients were admitted in Bath for paraly-
sis due to lead intoxication. Forty ﬁve per cent were cured and
93% had at least improved.
The high cure rates for paralysis by spa therapy in Bath may
be attributed to several factors. Sitting in warm water
produces diuresis, with increased excretion of sodium, potas-
sium, calcium, and also lead.
Also the good food, exercises,
removal from the source of lead, and the large quantities of
water rich in calcium and iron contributed to the success of
spa therapy in Bath.
In the past decade several randomised controlled trials have
studied the effects of spa therapy in rheumatoid arthritis
Patients were randomly allocated to
receive spa therapy or sham/no therapy. The authors of a
recent systematic review on the effects of spa therapy in rheu-
matoid arthr itis and osteoarthritis stated that a deﬁnite judg-
ment about its efﬁcacy is impossible because of methodologi-
cal ﬂaws in these studies.
Overall, the results showed positive
effects lasting for three to nine months. Recently, a
randomised controlled trial has shown that spa therapy is
clearly effective in ankylosing spondylitis.
groups followed a three week course of spa therapy at two dif-
ferent spa resorts, and were compared with a control group
who stayed at home and continued standard treatment
consisting of anti-inﬂammatory drugs and weekly group
physical therapy. Signiﬁcant improvements in function, pain,
global wellbeing, and morning stiffness were found for both
intervention groups until nine months after spa therapy.
Throughout the ages the interest in the use of water in medi-
cine has ﬂuctuated from century to century and from nation
to nation. The (medical) world has viewed it with different
opinions, from very enthusiastic to extremely critical, and
from beneﬁcial to harmful. Today, spa therapy is receiving
renewed attention from many medical specialties and health
tourists, and having a revival. However, the exact therapeutic
potential of spa therapy still remains largely unknown. Better
and more profound scientiﬁc evidence for its efﬁcacy is there-
fore warranted, in particular for its effects on the musculo-
A van Tubergen, S van der Linden, Department of Internal Medicine,
Division of Rheumatology, University Hospital, Maastricht, Maastricht,
Correspondence to: Dr A van Tubergen, Department of Internal
Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, University Hospital Maastricht, PO
Box 5800, 6202 AZ Maastricht, The Netherlands;
Accepted 25 September 2001
1 Calin A. Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, Bath. A 250th
birthday party [editorial]. J Rheumatol 1988;15:733–4.
2 Croutier AL.
Taking the waters: spirit, art, sensuality.
Abbeville Publishing Group, 1992.
3 Jackson R. Waters and spas in the classical world. Med Hist Suppl
4 Schadewalt H. The history of Roman bathing culture [in Dutch]. Integraal
5 Looman J, Pillen H. The development of the bathing culture [in Dutch].
6 Routh HB, Bhowmik KR, Parish LC, Witkowski JA. Balneology, mineral
water, and spas in historical perspective. Clin Dermatol 1996;14:551–4.
7 Porter R. The medical history of waters and spas. Introduction. Med Hist
8 Palmer R. “In this our lightye and learned tyme”: Italian baths in the era
of the Renaissance. Med Hist Suppl 1990;10:14–22.
9 Brockliss LW. The development of the spa in seventeenth-century France.
Med Hist Suppl 1990;10:23–47.
10 Coley NG. Physicians, chemists and the analysis of mineral waters: “the
most difficult part of chemistry”. Med Hist Suppl 1990;10:56–66.
11 van Wijk R. From the old towards the new Kneipp-cure [in Dutch].
12 Benedetto AV, Millikan LE. Mineral water and spas in the United States.
Clin Dermatol 1996;14:583–600.
13 Harley D. A sword in a madman’s hand: professional opposition to
popular consumption in the waters literature of southern England and the
Midlands, 1570–1870. Med Hist Suppl 1990;10:48–55.
14 Cantor D. The contradictions of specialization: rheumatism and the
decline of the spa in inter-war Britain. Med Hist Suppl 1990;10:127–44.
15 Tsankov NK, Kamarashev JA. Spa therapy in Bulgaria. Clin Dermatol
16 Titzmann T, Balda BR. Mineral water and spas in Germany. Clin
17 Andreassi L, Flori L. Mineral water and spas in Italy. Clin Dermatol
18 Vassileva S. Mineral water and spas in Bulgaria. Clin Dermatol
19 Heywood A. A trial of the Bath waters: the treatment of lead poisoning.
Med Hist Suppl 1990;10:82–101.
20 O’Hare JP, Heywood A, Summerhayes C, Lunn G, Evans JM, Walters
. Observations on the effect of immersion in Bath spa water. BMJ
21 Sukenik S, Neumann L, Buskila D, Kleiner Baumgarten A, Zimlichman S,
Horowitz J. Dead Sea bath salts for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Clin Exp Rheumatol 1990;8:353–7.
22 Sukenik S, Buskila D, Neumann L, Kleiner Baumgarten A, Zimlichman S,
Horowitz J. Sulphur bath and mud pack treatment for rheumatoid arthritis
at the Dead Sea area. Ann Rheum Dis 1990;49:99–102.
23 Elkayam O, Wigler I, Tishler M, Rosenblum I, Caspi D, Segal R,
Effect of spa therapy in Tiberias on patients with rheumatoid arthritis and
osteoarthritis. J Rheumatol 1991;18:1799–803.
24 Sukenik S, Neumann L, Flusser D, Kleiner Baumgarten A, Buskila D.
Balneotherapy for rheumatoid arthritis at the Dead Sea. Isr J Med Sci
25 Hall J, Skevington SM, Maddison PJ, Chapman K. A randomized and
controlled trial of hydrotherapy in rheumatoid a rthritis. Arthritis Care Res
26 Franke A, Reiner L, Pratzel HG, Franke T, Resch KL. Long-term efficacy of
radon spa therapy in rheumatoid arthritis—a randomized,
sham-controlled study and follow-up. Rheumatology (Oxford)
27 Sylvester KL. Investigation of the effect of hydrotherapy in the treatment
of osteoarthritic hips. Clin Rehabil 1989;4:223–8.
28 Green J, McKenna F, Redfern EJ, Chamberlain MA. Home exercises are
as effective as outpatient hydrotherapy for osteoarthritis of the hip. Br J
29 Wigler I, Elkayam O, Paran D, Yaron M. Spa therapy for gonarthrosis:
a prospective study. Rheumatol Int 1995;15:65–8.
30 Nguyen M, Revel M, Dougados M. Prolonged effects of 3 week therapy
in a spa resort on lumbar spine, knee and hip osteoarthritis: follow-up
after 6 months. A randomized controlled trial. Br J Rheumatol
31 Verhagen AP, de Vet HC, de Bie RA, Kessels AG, Boers M, Knipschild
PG. Balneotherapy for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis (Cochrane
Review). In: The Cochrane Library, Issue 1. Oxford: Update Software,
32 van Tubergen A, Landewé R, van der Heijde D, Hidding A, Wolter N,
. Combined spa-exercise therapy is effective in patients
with ankylosing spondylitis: a randomized controlled trial. Arthritis Rheum
History of spa therapy 275