Healing with Water: Balneotherapy in East Central Europe

Budapest Thermal Spring spa

East Central Europe has been marked by the social, cultural, scientific significance of their natural mineral and thermal waters. For centuries, inhabitants of this region have given the utmost credence to their salutary powers, drinking and bathing in thousands of springs across the countries in which they occur.

Once considered a part of prescientific medicine, it was only quite recently that the scientific medical community began to recognize the medical significance of balneotherapy

The development of medically-supervised spas, founded on sites with distinctive hydrogeological resources, were supported by governments, trade unions, and national health insurance programs during the Socialist era. During this time, they began to be posited as purposeful medical institutions rather than posh resorts. 

In this region, the “water cure” continues to be prescribed by doctors. Healing waters belong to the system of public health care. Spa stays are often covered by statutory health insurance for the prevention and treatment of pathological conditions.

Spa Town Culture

Mineral and thermal waters are deeply embedded in local cultures.  

Whether of worldly renown or a village secret, people pass down anecdotal evidence of their healing powers, swearing by the relief brought by their local spring or their yearly pilgrimage to a spa town. 

It’s not uncommon to drive through an unexceptional village and see cars pulling off to the side of the road, passengers clambering out with plastic bottles in hand, heading to fill up at an inconspicuous tap and concrete pool.

In the more opulent spa towns, mugs are left at neo-classical pavilions so that locals can have a drink of mineral water while passing en route to run errands. Visiting guests are spotted toting around souvenir cups which can be purchased at stands dotted around towns.

Spa Town heritage 

Opulent facility for Balenoetherapy

In these regions, permeated by the austerity of the socialist era, spa towns preserved their opulent neo-classical, neo-renaissance, and neo-baroque architecture. Even newer buildings were designed in a worldly, modernist style. Wide promenades, covered arcades, and extensive park grounds encouraged visitors to stroll in the fresh air as part of the cure. 

Socialist citizens reaped the rewards of their labor, enjoying restorative treatments, a convivial atmosphere, and a welcome break from the monotony of their everyday. 

Delving into the waters

Mineral and thermal waters are both groundwaters present in the rock sedimentation below our feet. As the water passes through the rocks, it collects the minerals, chemicals, and temperature of the underground environment. Depending on this concentration of active compounds, this water can be designated a medically observed curative resource. 

Mineral water is described by the balneological industry as groundwater which contains at least 1 g/kg of dissolved solids, as opposed to freshwater which has less. The majority of curative waters have a mineralization much higher than 1g/kg. 

Thermal waters, or geothermal waters, are defined as groundwater with a temperature of at least 20°C at the outflow, emerging from depths of anywhere between 100m to 2,000m depending on the region. 

What is Balneotherapy?

Balneotherapy is a range of therapeutic procedures involving the use of natural mineral and thermal waters and muds for prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. 

This traditional organic therapy has been proven to successfully treat many medical conditions, among them atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, respiratory illnesses, and circulatory diseases. Each condition requires a different chemical composition. Patients are prescribed a stay in a location corresponding to their ailment. 

The treatment is a combination of several different therapies, prescribed by medical doctors according to the patient’s diagnosis, all involving mineral spring water. Balneotherapy treatments are paired with a strict diet of healthy food, massages, and lots of fresh air. The traditional treatment lasts a minimum of three to four weeks and always includes the drinking and bathing cures. 

The drinking cure entails consuming two cups of medical mineral water before every meal for the duration of treatment. Their taste and mineral contents vary greatly; not only from town to town, but also individual taps in the same location. The Ambrosev Spring in Mariánské Lázně (CZ) has a distinct metallic taste with light carbonation. When drunk, its high iron content is used to treat anemia. 

While mineral water can be consumed without limitation, medical mineral water should only be consumed under the direction of a physician. This particularly important for visitors with high blood pressure and cardiac problems who could be gravely affected by drinking the wrong mineral content. 

Bathing in mineral waters has both a restorative and social aspect. Many spas have huge swimming pools, pumped with thermal water or heated mineral water, where guests can loll for hours. In Budapest, at the famous Szechenyi Bath, soakers challenge one another to games of chess, only interrupted by intermittent cold water plunges. 

Another treatment is the application of heated mineralized mud packs heaped upon localized areas. The patient is then wrapped up like a mummy, and left to sweat it out. The greasy, steel-blue sulfurous mud in Piešt’any (SK) is used to stimulate blood flow, suppress inflammation, and relieve the swelling of joints and muscle tension.

Some guests suffering from joint pain, as a result of arthritis or circulation problems, are assuaged by natural gas injections directly into the troublesome spot in Mariánské Lázně (CZ). 

What does Balneotherapy treat?

The unique mineral and chemical composition of the water source corresponds to a treatment designated for particular ailments. 

Couple engaging in balneotherapy in a hot tub

The cold, carbonic acidulous water springs of Mariánské Lázně are notable for treating kidney problems; the diuretic effect of the Rudolph Spring remedies urinary tract complaints and the ferrous carbonated mineral water of the Karolina Spring has a high magnesium content (81,1 mg/l) which helps prevent the formation of kidney stones. Of the 40 springs found in the town surrounds, eight have been accorded medical healing properties. 

The sulfurous hot springs of Trenčianske Teplice (SK) emerge at a temperature of 38.4 to 40°C. Rich in hydrogen sulfide, patients with musculoskeletal disorders experience an analgesic effect (pain relief) both during and after bathing in the expansive thermal pools. The warm temperatures make it possible to swim outdoors year-round.

Not far away in Piešt’any (SK), the waters are even hotter, bubbling up at temperatures of 67- 69 degrees which must be cooled before use in the spa. The high concentration of sulfur and hydrogen sulfide helps increase chronic muscular-skeletal mobility as well as relieve symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. No wonder the symbol of the town is a man breaking his (now obsolete) crutch following his treatment. 

Taking the water cure in Piešt’any is a challenge if you’re not a fan of hot, boiled egg-flavored water. The pungent, sulfurous aroma permeates the drinking fountain area. 

However, balneotherapy is not merely for mobility issues. Drinking the magnesium-calcium-sulfate-rich waters of Széchenyi spring in Budapest (HU) is reputed to alleviate stomach issues, ulcers, kidney stones, and even gout. Across the city, the Lukács spring helps sufferers of chronic gastritis. 

In the Polish town of Krynica, the Jan spring supports the treatment of diabetics. The prevalence of calcium bicarbonate couple with high carbonation makes it a diuretic, ideal for reducing blood cholesterol levels. In the same town, the Zuber spring is one of the strongest mineral waters in Europe. Its composition is high in bicarbonate-calcium, sodium bicarbonate-magnesium, and boron, as well as being highly carbonated. It’s used in the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, helping treat hyperacidity. It’s also bottled and exported globally to devotees. 

Gynecological conditions, including infertility, are treated at Františkovy Lázně (CZ) through the use of moor, a type of mud containing minerals from carbonic water. The oxidized FeS2 (pyrite) encourages the growth of good bacteria and flora in the vagina. There are a further 20 mineral water springs across the town, each with a distinctive chemical composition. 

Leisure or medicine?

East Central Europe is rife with unique, natural mineral springs and a strong belief in their healing powers. The last decades, since the fall of the Soviet Union, has seen an increase in wellness tourism. Today, anyone can take “the cure” for a leisurely couple of days, relishing in languid swims in thermal water and drinking the peculiar waters emerging from the depths. 

Nevertheless, mineral and thermal waters continue to be a resource for ailing inhabitants who continue to receive balneotherapy funded by the public health system. 

By Natalia Kvitkova — Jan 7, 2021
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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