Doctors prescribe the spa treatment
A trip to the spa can be prescribed for arthritis, and reimbursements are available. Patient Carolyn Reynier explains:
With a family history of arthritis, Carolyn Reynier was keen to ease the pain and was sent on a thermal cure by her doctor – with much of her costs being covered by the French health service:
My father and his sister suffered from arthritis and for a couple of years now I have been feeling the first twinges. People offered suggestions on how to deal with the pain and the best came from my sister-in-law who said her father had restarted running after stopping due to pain from arthritic knees ... he had been advised to eat seven gin-soaked raisins each morning. Apparently, it is the juniper that does it.
I immediately started to do the same. I have no idea if it works but it is one hell of a way to start the day.
France has a more scientifically tested method, offering thermal cures in more than 100 stations thermales and treating half a million people a year – with 65% of the treatment cost being covered by the Sécurité Sociale.
Depending on your financial situation, some of your travel and accommodation costs are also paid. So, armed with my Carte Vitale, I ask my doctor about getting treatment. We fill out our respective parts of the Demande de prise en charge for the local Caisse d’Assurance Maladie and, as I live in Alpes-Maritimes, we chose Gréoux-les-Bains in the nearby Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.
Thermal medicine is a curative and preventative treatment and the thermal waters at Gréoux are particularly suited for rheumatology and respiratory infections as they are rich in sulphur, calcium and sodium with a high presence of magnesium and numerous trace elements.
Their pain-reducing benefits have been known for some time; the name Gréoux comes from the Celtic name Grésilium, meaning eau de la douleur water for pain. The treatments, les soins, aim to relieve pain and reduce medication. Sulphur’s analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties are key for rheumatology treatments, impregnating the organism and relaxing painful muscles and joints; the magnesium tones muscular fibres.
Once the caisse had agreed, I booked accommodation for the mandatory three-week cure. There is a wide range of accommodation including the hotels and self-catering accommodation run by the Chaîne Thermale du Soleil which owns the Gréoux spa plus numerous others. Some curistes also stay in camp sites.
For €687 I book one of the cheaper fully-equipped studios in a Chaîne Thermale residence and make an appointment with a spa doctor for the Saturday morning after my arrival. A free shuttle bus takes me to the spa, but I walk the 10 minutes down and back most mornings.
The doctor decides on my treatments; at reception I finish formalities and receive my treatment card. The total cost of my soins in rheumatology is €483. I write out a cheque for my share which is €169. If you have private health insurance, une mutuelle complémentaire, some or all of your costs may be reimbursed depending on your contract.
There is a choice of start times between 7.00 and 9.00. I plump for the middle and am allocated 8.20. My treatments start in earnest on Monday with a session in the pool with the physiotherapist kiné. I need a swimsuit (which I have), bathing cap and slip-proof shoes (which I don’t, but buy from the shop). For the next 18 days (no treatments on Sunday) I have the same routine: checking in at the entrance, down to the vestiaire to collect a white towelling bath robe and two towels, change into my swimsuit and hand my clothes to the white-coated assistants and set off with treatment card in pocket to walk through and under the first of many foot baths and showers.
First stop each day is the Verveine piscine de mobilisation. We walk down into a pool of water at 42C, the natural temperature of the water coming from a depth of 1,200m. We spend 15 minutes doing exercises for our joints and muscles with a young kiné. We work on neck, shoulders, hips, hands, fingers, arms, legs and coordination.
Each week our kiné changes; we start with Alexandra from Poland, then Daniel from Spain and Gabriella from Romania. After each session – they are seriously hard work – the kiné turns on individually controlled high-pressure underwater jets and we spend an ecstatic five minutes – too short – controlling the jets to pummel different parts of our bodies – feet, hips, shoulder blades, neck. It is bliss.
My next stop for the first and last week is the douche pénétrante. I lie face down on a treatment table while for five minutes four high-pressure jets of warm water pound down on to my shoulders and upper spine, the areas designated by the doctor. When I get up I feel as light as a feather, a feeling which seems to last for hours.
The final treatment is 10 minutes in the bain de boue général. I step into a warm communal bath of kaolin and thermal water. The last time I heard the word kaolin was as a child when my mother would use kaolin poultices to extract splinters. The clay’s density produces a relaxing weightless effect. If I don’t hold on to the bars dividing the pool into separate individual sections I float.
I sit on the underwater ledge, let the magnolia-coloured liquid come up to my chin and listen to the quiet chatter. Sometimes I let go of a bar and my legs float to the surface. After showering off the kaolin and getting changed again, by 10.00 I am walking back up to my studio where I have another shower with soap. I feel like crashing out but I work, have lunch, then crash out.
And that, as far as the cure thermale is concerned, is that. The rest of the day is mine. There are plenty of activities for the curistes: treatments are in the morning so everything starts in the early afternoon.
I discover Gréoux and its surroundings on walks led by tourist office guides; their bus takes us to the Ganagobie plateau to visit the monastery and marvel at spectacular views of the river Durance plain and the Valensole plateau to the east, and forests and Mont Ventoux to the west; I waltz and tango at tea dances in the casino and two spa-owned hotels; I stroll along the banks of the Verdon; late afternoon I drink hot chocolate à l’ancienne and eat homemade additive-free biscuits at a café in the village centre; nearby in the small and lovely Notre- Dame-des-Ormeaux I attend Mass celebrated by a variety of Colombian priests, all adding to the cosmopolitan flavour.
Number plates in car parks (and accents) show curistes come not just from nearby departments but from all over – as far as Finistère in Brittany. Some people I speak to have come to Gréoux regularly for years; one couple tell me they also take a mini-cure elsewhere during the year (which is not reimbursed by the Sécu).
You can also get additional charged complementary treatments at the spa. At the end of week two I bid a sad farewell to the floating kaolin pool – which is replaced with the even better cataplasme de boue. In an individual cubicle I lie on my back with three hot (circa 48-50C) poultices filled with a mixture of kaolin and thermal water placed along the cervical, dorsal and lumbar vertebrae of my spine.
These help vasodilation which decreases blood pressure, pain sedation and provide better oxygenation of the tissues surrounding joints. The assistant wraps me up in a plastic sheet and I drift off to sleep as the heat from the poultice packs penetrates my spine. On one glorious day I have both the general mud bath and the hot poultices.
At the end I see the doctor again and find I have lost just over half a kilo. He asks how I feel. Do my knees still hurt? No, I say, I have the rather curious but delightful sensation that my whole body feels much lighter. He writes a letter to my doctor and asks for a cheque for €70. I leave Gréoux-les-Bains on a sunny Saturday. Will I book in next year? You bet. Will I give up the gin-soaked raisins? No way. It’s called hedging your bets.