The Salt Cave: Cure-all or Quackery?

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Salt cave therapy, a new form of alternative medicine that was transplanted from Europe, is steadily spreading across the United States.

The basic idea is this: patients enter a room designed to imitate a subterranean, salt-permeated environment, like those naturally found in Ukraine, Russia, and Poland. Once inside, they're instructed to breathe deeply so that they can absorb the salt's natural healing powers. Sessions often last about forty-five minutes.

So mystical, so simple: It sent my incredulity skyrocketing when I first heard about it!

shutterstock_2621504.jpgThe interior of one of these NaCl bastions is dimly lit, only a faint pink hue emanates from the salt-composed walls. Draped in thin, white blankets, patrons can relaxingly sprawl out on reclined chairs, which are nestled into the cave's bed of sand-like salt crystals. From the corner, a generator issues a muffled hum as it emits dry salt aerosol. Supposedly a healing panacea, the salt-laden air is claimed to resolve medical issues such as depression, asthma, cystic fibrosis, allergies, and ear infections. The entire scene is quiet, serene, and apparently cleansing, if you subscribe to the accompanying mumbo-jumbo, that is:

"It is not only the purity of the air in the salt caves that have such healing effects, but also its resonant vibration, that activates our self-healing and self-regulating powers. When our body is sick and lacking its natural frequency, salt can bring us back into our original, balanced state. Deep in the heart of the Earth, surrounded by millions of tons of salt, patients can encounter the influence of the enormous power of the salt's balancing frequency, thereby replenishing the body with its energy deficit."
Right...

Personally, that paragraph of woo doesn't do much for me. As any decent critical thinker would say, "Show me the studies!" Well, as it turns out, salt cave backers have actually got some. Clinical studies have shown signs of improved lung function and skin condition in subjects exposed to salt cave treatments.

There are many aspects of these studies that set off my skeptic alarm, however. They all were conducted in Russia, were exceedingly vague, and lacked randomization.

Contradictory to the claims of salt cave owners, two noted doctors from the United States and Australia have warned that salt therapy may exacerbate asthma symptoms, seeing as how salt is itself an irritant known to cause airway constriction.

To date, no randomized clinical trials have been conducted on salt caves in the United States, leaving their effectiveness scientifically unsubstantiated, and very much up in the air.

So, take the salt cave claims with a grain of salt. (Pun very much intended.)

(Image: Cave via Shutterstock)
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