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Prescription For Relaxation

Prescription For Relaxation

A traditional source of healing around the world, spas are now becoming a model for U.S. hospitals embracing integrative wellness.  

The smell of lavender wafts through the air, released from an aromatherapy diffuser on the table. A woman lies in a state of deep calm, having just completed a series of restorative yoga poses, and a therapist is relaxing her even further with massage therapy.  If you think this sounds like a spa visit, think again; the setting is actually a New York City hospital, and the person receiving treatments is a stroke survivor.   

Head to New Jersey, and it’s the same story: A brand-new medical center features a full-service spa that offers facials, massage, and other spa services. But this state-of-the-art facility complete with multiple pools and Jacuzzis, a fitness center, and a café also includes a cardiac rehab unit and provides surgery, radiation oncology, and arthritis care.   

These are just two examples of a sea of change that’s occurring in the health care professionals view of wellness – and it all starts with spas.  The positive feelings we get by luxuriating in spa environments can translate into long-term wellness. Just think of the relief that can be found sitting in a steam room or whirlpool tub. Add time in a silent lounge without cell phones, and a drop in stress levels is as apparent as a spa-goer’s exhale.  

Now that more medical professionals are recognizing the role of stress in setting our bodies up for disease, it makes perfect sense for hospitals to take a page from spas and offer massage, aromatherapy, yoga, and other relaxation-inducing therapies, viewing them as integral parts of a preventive approach to healthcare.  There’s been a revolution in how the medical profession views health and wellness – stress reduction is now seen as a major player in keeping people healthy and active and preventing chronic disease.  

Try to dismiss integrative wellness programs as isolated examples of cutting-edge medicine, and experts will set you straight. A 2007 survey by the American Hospital Association found that 37% of responding hospitals offered complementary or alternative therapies, up from 26.5 percent in 2005.   Some hospitals are taking the spa concept even further by providing patients with soothing amenities such as herbal tonics and organic skincare products. The primary push for all of this change is coming from consumers, experts say.  Americans spend almost $34 billion a year on complementary and alternative medical treatments, according to data complied by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. But that doesn’t mean doctors and nurses aren’t recognizing the benefits of recommending alternative therapies to patients. In fact, according to a 2009 survey by the American Massage Therapy Association, 76 percent of massage therapists received referrals from health care professionals that year, an increase from 69 percent just one year before. In addition, the number of hospitals offering massage increased by more than 30 percent between 2004 and 2006.  

The therapeutic/alternative medicine program first began in New York, initially for patients and families needing help coping with the stress of treatments. The program provides training in healing and relaxation techniques for nurses and yoga teachers, then brings them into the hospital wards to work with patients.   At hospitals that have therapeutic/alternative medicine programs, staff members have embraced the new approach. When the program first began, doctors and nurses weren’t sure how it could help. Now the therapeutic practitioner is barely through the door and they’re saying, “Thank God you’re here, can you please go to the patient in Room 1? She’s so anxious and upset, we can’t get her to calm down.” Hospitals around the country – including the Mayo Clinic, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and City of Hope – are calling to try and set up similar programs.  

Perhaps one reason hospitals are so excited is the program’s apparent success. Benjamin Kligler, M.D., vice chairman of the department of integrative medicine at Beth Israel has overseen a research study following the pilot therapeutic project and has been documenting results.  While the study is not yet complete, he’s pleased with the outcome so far. “I can tell you we’re seeing very positive results,” he says. “The patients say they have less anxiety, less pain, fewer sleep problems, and less emotional stress from treatment."  

None of this comes as a surprise to therapeutic professionals. Pampering equals self-care; it's a way of sending yourself a message that you're worth caring for. All the things we know in the therapeutic community - the importance of touch and taking time for yourself - the medical community is now discovering. They're realizing how important it is for people to feel empowered to take care care of themselves.