Author: Dr. Abdeltif Hanaoui
When most of us get back from the beach, we take a bath to get rid of the sand, but this isn’t always so in Merzouga, a small desert village located in the southeast of Morocco 600 km from the capital Rabat. It is well known for its large dunes, regarded as one of the crucial natural wonders of this region in Morocco – hence the development of a hotel industry around the area offerings tourists a variety of activities like camel trekking, bivouacking in the desert, sunrise and sunset tours, and the sand baths during the summer.
A sand bath is natural therapy, mainly used as an analgesic treatment for chronic rheumatism and neuromuscular pain. The history of this practice dates back to the Pharaohs and the ancient Greeks who used it to treat the pain of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Several sand bath sites exist around the sand baths, but Merzouga remains at the top, thanks to the quality of its yellow sand and the purity of its dry climate.
What is a Sand Bath?
The bath consists of covering the body by the sand – from the chest to the toes, in a hole of about 30 cm (1ft) deep, for an average of 10 minutes. The baths are prepared by curists, who dig the hole and care for the patient.
At first, the sand is very hot, but after a few minutes the body adapts to the temperature of the sand and a generalized sweating begins and the patient feels a comfortable relief. During the bath, patients drink small sips of mineral water to cool off and rehydrate.
After 10 minutes, the patient leaves the bath, and the curist covers the patient a wool blanket in order to fight against the cold caused by difference in temperature between the sand and the air.
Then the patient enters a tent to rest and drink a tea with medicinal plants.
During this rest, the sweat continues strongly and mixes with the sand attached to the body to form a mud that covers the cutaneous surface, creating a thalassotherapy effect.
Sand Bath as a Treatment Option
The typical sand bath patient suffers from articular diseases (such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis) or neuromuscular diseases (such as sciatica and low back pain) and their pharmaceutical treatments have not yielded expected results. These patients come to Merzouga on the advice of their doctor or their entourage, often after failure of the usual pharmaceutical treatments like NSAI (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory) or after a relapse of pain from surgery. There are even reported cases of neuromuscular disorders (involuntary movements) and skin diseases that improved after visiting Merzouga.
How the Sand Bath Works
The high temperature, the mineral-rich components of the sand, the solar rays and the dry climate of Merzouga combine to make the sand therapy effective. However, we do not yet know all of the changes the body goes through during a session of sandblasting – some of which may explain the therapeutic efficacy reported by the patients.
From a hemodynamic point of view, the thermoregulation process and its mechanisms and stress conditions (the heat, the weight of the sand against the body, etc.) explain the main phenomena observed during the sand bath – the increase of Arterial pressure, vasodilation, hypersudation with significant dilation of the skin pores, tachycardia and tachypnea. These changes lead to better vascularization and therefore oxygenation of the articular tissues, particularly avascular tissues, which do not receive blood vessels.
This data comes from a study by the University of Xinjiang in China published in 2012, which studied the effect of the sand bath in Uyghur on the local blood circulation of the knee and found that sand baths can increase the diameter of the arteries as well as accelerate blood flow.
In addition to the observed hemodynamic phenomena, we can ask ourselves about biological phenomena that can also explain the benefits of sand bathing, in particular the role of minerals and their possible skin exchanges, as well as the existence of any protein or hormonal secretions.
The Medical Tourism Intuitive
I said to myself, why not organize this therapy medically to improve its effectiveness, reduce the chance of complications and death, and to conduct research aimed at better understanding the mechanisms of action in the sand baths and define the set of diseases that can be improved by this therapy.
This is the first of its kind in Morocco. Patients can spend three days in Merzouga and one day in the thermal cures of Hammat Moulay Ali Cherif in Errachidia, a wellness destination in the southeastern region of Morocco.