In early March, I snapped my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and tore a few other bits in my knee while skiing in Saalbach Hinterglemm. It’s been a painful time — I had a reconstruction on the knee (using an autograft of my hamstring) on 22 April, and a month on it was still stiff, swollen and generally giving me gyp.
In an attempt to ease the pain and inflammation, and help get things moving, three weeks ago I headed to the Bad Hofgastein, for a week of intensive rehab in the medical spa at Grand Park Hotel and help from the mystical Bad Gastein healing caves.
I arrived at the hotel tired, stressed and in pain, still using crutches: although five weeks post-op, I had set myself back by tearing my hamstring in a fall. But they set to work on me straight away, and in my first afternoon in Austria I had a consultation with resident doctor Liane Weber who talked me through my treatment programmed and an anti-inflammatory diet (lots of pumpkin seeds and green tea, plenty of berries, protein at lunch, no animal products at supper, no dairy products, no raw food…). She also gave me acupuncture and a tuina massage, a form of Chinese therapy known to add acute (or chronic) musculoskeletal conditions, to stimulate fitness and healing. I knew I was going to enjoy this week.
The next day I headed to the Gastein healing caves “Gasteiner Heilstollen” where I put my clothes in a locker, donned my swimming costume and a hotel bathrobe and boarded a tiny train along with 100-odd other “patients” and chugged deep into the warm mountain.
Gasteiner Heilstollen are the only warm radon caves in the world, and are said to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation and stablise the immune system through a combination of heat and humidity (they range between 37 and 41.5C and 70-100% humidity) and radon content. I was sceptical, but shared the hotel bus from Grand Park with a 41-year-old Egyptian man from Cairo who told me he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis when he was 10. Moenis was a wealthy businessman with access to the best healthcare in the world: his father had been a radiographer at Oxford. But three years ago he discovered the Gastein healing caves and since his first visit in 2010 has been completely pain-free. He used to take painkillers every day of his life but no longer has any need. It’s stories such as Moenis’s (I heard many others like it) that make you believe.
I shuffled in silence into the cave, and lay down on a sunbed in the dark, wondering how quickly the hour will pass. I hate being in a sauna and how miners worked in these conditions, I don’t know. But pass it did, quickly, and before I knew it I was on the train chugging my way out, feeling that at the very least the heat and humidity would have helped rid my body of the toxins from my general anaesthetic and the co-codamol I had been swallowing daily. That evening my skin looked amazing, after months of looking grey and pallid I had life in my cheeks and I was in less pain: I was going again.
My routine, set by Dr Liane Weber at Grand Park, combined daily visits in the caves with physiotherapy, hydrotherapy in the hotel’s thermal water pool and manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). This was another therapy that filled me with scepticism – particularly when it turned out to be akin to soft skin brushing — until I was kept awake until 1am the night of my first treatment, with burning hot legs as my body rid itself of toxins. MLD is used post-operatively in hospitals in Austria; this nation seems far more connected to nature.
I wish I’d taken 'before and after’ photos of my knee — when I arrived my entire left leg was red and blotchy, swollen and with really poor circulation and desperately lacking muscle tone. A week later, I literally bounced out of the hotel, almost forgetting my crutches discarded in the corner of my hotel room. I hadn’t taken a painkiller since the plane on the way over.
The staff at Grand Park felt like friends, they were all so keen to help and interested in my progress — running over with ice packs whenever I appeared in reception and tempting me with blueberries, strawberries and raspberries every morning. I hope to go back for the ski season to try the ski area and do another week of treatment in the caves (usual treatment time is two or three weeks, not one). But for now, I have accelerated down my healing track.
Two weeks after returning home, at seven and a half weeks post-op, my physiotherapists tell me I am at the same stage as someone who had their ACL reconstruction three months ago. Today I went out on my road bike, and I have been riding horses since I returned home on 3 June. I have no doubt that the caves, therapy and diet made this amazing difference.
For more information about Grand Park Hotel and the Gastein Healing Caves, visit grandparkhotel.at
Healing an ACL skiing injury: inside the Gasteiner Heilstollen