Doctors go caving

Mention caves and usually images of darkness, musty rocks and bats come to mind.

But health specialists in the Czech Republic are putting caves in a more positive light by promoting a special treatment for allergies, bronchitis and other breathing problems called “speleotherapy”.

Speleotherapy, or cave therapy, involves exposing patients to the temperature-controlled and mineral-rich air that is found underground.

“There are definitely advantageous characteristics in a cave environment,” said Dr Vit Petru, an allergist at Prague’s Na Homolce hospital.

Benefits include “relatively clean air without allergens and a minimal amount of germs”, Petru said.

He said cave air is also known for high humidity, steady temperatures of about eight degrees Celsius, minimal air movement, the absences of ozone and high ion content—all factors that can improve a patient’s breathing.

Currently a children’s health centre in Ostrov U Macochy, eastern Czech Republic, offers speleotherapy to young asthma patients.

Youngsters spend several hours a day for up to three weeks in a natural cave. The programme includes bed rest, games and breathing exercises that let the cave’s air infiltrate their lungs.

Speleotherapy is also offered at health centres in Slovakia, Poland, Germany and Romania. But the therapy varies according to the underground environment.

Some treatment programmes use the special air found in old salt mines, while others rely on natural caves with high radon content.

In the Czech town of Kutna Hora, an old silver mine is currently being considered as a site for another sort of speleotherapy centre based on the curative effects of silver.

Lenka Reichova of the Czech Academy of Sciences says geologists, doctors and biologists in her country have been working together to understand and promote speleotherapy since 1992.

Their research involves “one of the closest connections between the disciplines of medicine and natural history” in modern science, Reichova said.

The work to promote speleotherapy is especially important now because doctors need new ways to fight rising rates of childhood asthma and allergies in many parts of Europe, she said.—Sapa-DPA

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