Caves that can banish pain? Now that really is holeistic! Inside the Austrian mountain that offer an amazing cure
I’m in my swimsuit sitting on what looks like a theme park ride, about to travel a mile into a mountain in Austria. It is 100F (38C) and sweat drips from every pore. I’m trying an amazing treatment.
At the Gastein healing caves, in Radhausberg mountain, a controversial form of therapy with radioactive radon gas is used to treat a long list of medical conditions, including arthritis and other joint pain, chronic bronchitis and skin conditions such as my psoriasis.
The medical staff are evangelical about the healing benefits of the low-level radon gas found in the caves: they say it can offer sustained pain relief, reduce the need for medication, stimulate the body’s anti-inflammatory abilities and help people who have suffered for years.
Deep down healing: Patients take the radon treatment in Gastein caves in the Austrian mountains which is said to combat a number of medical problems
These may be eyebrow-raising claims but the patients who flock here – 75,000 last year, mostly from Central Europe – would agree with them. The therapy is so accepted in Austria and Germany, it’s available on health insurance.
Miners who went into the mountain in the Forties in search of gold were the first to discover their health complaints disappeared. Studies carried out by the University of Innsbruck identified the temperatures of up to 106F (41C), high humidity and the radon as the reason.
Yet the therapy is virtually unknown in the UK. Medics who have heard of it tend to regard radon with suspicion, for in high doses the gas is believed to be toxic and can increase the risk of lung cancer.
Dr Hasan Tahir, a consultant rheumatologist at Whipps Cross University Hospital in East London, says: ‘It may be an interesting option for patients to take this treatment alongside conventional medicine.
‘However, as radon is potentially carcinogenic – admittedly at a much higher dose – I would like to see more long-term safety data.’
But doctors at the clinic in Austria say the radon in the caves is completely safe. ‘Scientific studies have shown exposure to low-dosage radon stimulates DNA repair, antioxidant action and immune response. And no adverse effects have ever been reported,’ says Dr Liane Weber, who has worked at the clinic for a decade, alongside a team of physiotherapists and massage therapists.
The argument that low-level radon may be healing is based upon a scientific principle called hormesis. Small doses of a particular substance may be beneficial – even if high doses are harmful or lethal.
In 2001, Maastricht University studied patients with ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory condition which causes severe joint pain and stiffness. One group had radon treatment in the caves followed by physiotherapy, a second group had sauna treatments and physiotherapy, and a third had physiotherapy alone. Improvements were significantly better in the radon group.
Banishing back pain: The radon treatment is said to help with pain and arthritis
Similar studies were carried out by Leipzig University in 2000 with patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. After six months, there were significant improvements in pain relief and function in the group exposed to the radon.
So, can Dr Weber help my psoriasis? She examines me. I have a mild form of the itchy skin condition, but it is stubbornly resistant to the various remedies I’ve tried.
Dr Weber recommends a three-week course. ‘Ideally you’d have nine to ten sessions in the radon gallery, with radon-filled baths on alternate days.
‘I’d also recommend low-dosage laser treatment,’ she says. She suggests a combined Chinese massage and acupuncture too.
Alas, I am only here for three days, which means one session in the radon caves, the massage, and one radon bath.
Dr Weber makes it clear I’m unlikely to notice any change with this short treatment and points out that even patients who have the full course only tend to notice the benefits after four to eight weeks.
Even so, I am still eager to give it a try. In the women’s cave I strip off and lie on one of the beds lining the cave walls. I try to relax, but it isn’t easy knowing I’m far from daylight and at first my panic starts to build.
At least I can push a button to summon a doctor. There is also a cooling room with emergency equipment, a pipe that can let in an instant blast of cooling, fresh air and a spare train to whisk you out of the cave in a hurry. None of this proves to be needed.
Afterwards, the massage and acupuncture are energising.
A day later, I have the radon bath, which is relaxing. As for my psoriasis, there’s no change, but I’m still convinced there is something in it.
The Grand Park Hotel Bad Hofgastein offers a Healing Cave Programme from €1,477 (£1,293)pp for seven nights full board, including four healing cave sessions, two consultations with Dr Weber, a Chinese massage, two radon thermal baths, one nutrition lecture, two massages and one electrotherapy. Call +43 6432 63560, grandparkhotel.at.