Cure things

Sore feet, hair loss and backne-not exactly the relaxing stuff of spa roundups. But these treatments fix what ails you and help you chill out.



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Back spasms

BACK SPASMS "I looked like I'd been run over by a truck, but immediately after, my shoulders were totally and completely relaxed, almost as if I'd lost the capacity to shrug."

I've sampled my share of massages—everywhere from Chinatown's wu lim parlors to the city's fanciest day spas—but my rocky, spasm-prone upper back refuses to relax. I'll feel better for an hour—sometimes even a few—and then my stubborn shoulders start creeping up toward my ears and the pain returns.

"I want all of the knots gone," I explained to Robert MacDonald, director of wellness and healing at the superpopular countrywide chain Exhale Spa (150 Central Park South between Sixth and Seventh Aves; 980 Madison Ave between 76th and 77th Sts, second floor; 212-249-3000, One hour for $150). "I can't promise that," he said, "but we'll see if we can start to correct what sounds like a habitual problem." We scheduled four sessions over a two-week period, the first being one day after a 36-hour trip home from Cambodia. By the time I arrived, my right shoulder was shrieking in discomfort.

I clambered up onto the bed and MacDonald examined my torso, noting that my upper back felt like a piece of wood: one solid stump. "Your feedback arc—which is how the spinal cord communicates with the muscles—is looping," he explained. "It means that your muscles aren't getting the message to relax. As they fatigue, the muscles surrounding those pressure points are sympathetically tensing in support."

Using acupuncture to "help relieve the blocked flow of qi," MacDonald needled into the trigger spots up and down my spine and at various corollary points in my hands and feet. It felt amazing (and, as a side effect, cured my jet lag), particularly when he used tuning forks to vibrate the needles, but I was anxious for the serious kneading to begin. MacDonald really went for it: I have a high tolerance for pain, but as he pressed his entire arm into my extremely tender back, I almost yelped. The massage component lasted for only about 15 minutes—but that was enough. He released so much lactic acid that for days afterward I felt like a personal trainer had kicked my ass.

In between sessions, MacDonald gave me homework: I was to be mindful of how I sit at my desk, carry my bag, hunch at the dinner table. He urged me to stretch, roll around on tennis balls and replace my eight goose-down pillows with a contoured option. "I can only do so much," he added. "You need to do most of it by retraining and balancing your body."

After two basic acupuncture/massage sessions, MacDonald pulled out the big guns. He lit a flame inside a glass tube—it looked like a bud vase—which he suctioned onto my back and slid up and down my spine. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow's famous cupping circles, my entire back was streaked with purple bruises, composed of stagnant qi brought to the surface of the skin. I looked like I'd been run over by a truck, but immediately after, my shoulders were totally and completely relaxed, almost as if I'd lost the capacity to shrug.

By the final treatment, my back was open enough that MacDonald could get his fingers deep into its recesses to isolate and manipulate my main problematic trigger points. And at home, I was able to nudge tennis balls in there, too (I put them under the tops of my shoulders while I watch TV). Now I'm incredibly mindful of how my bad habits are affecting my back pain. I no longer wedge the phone in between my shoulder and ear; I took all of the change weighing my purses down to Commerce Bank this weekend (about ten pounds); I'm not putting my elbows on the table and sagging into my spine; and I'm not rolling my shoulders forward when I walk. It's a pain, but at least it's not in my shoulders. —Elise Loehnen


Spa at Chelsea Piers
Most upper-back-pain sufferers might find that one deep-tissue session does the trick. Gym-based spas tend to provide excellent muscle relief, so consider a deep-tissue massage ($120 for 50 minutes) here. 23rd St at West Side Hwy (212-366-6780)

Equinox Fitness
...or a deep-tissue massage (50 minutes for $150, 80 minutes for $165) at any of this gym's spas. See for locations

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