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HEALTH: How fishy feet can be good for you

PUBLISHED: 15:06 31 August 2010 | UPDATED: 16:03 31 August 2010

Fishy Feet: Mary Hamilton tries out the Dr Fish Spa at The Mall in Norwich

Fishy Feet: Mary Hamilton tries out the Dr Fish Spa at The Mall in Norwich

Archant © 2010

Having your feet bitten by fish is the stuff nightmares and horror films are made of - or is it? MARY HAMILTON goes to Dr Spafish to have her pinkies tickled by a few friendlier fish.

The thought of dipping your toes into water infested by hungry fish conjures up images of vicious pirahnas gathering in the water,
ready to strip the flesh from your bones.

But far from the toothy terrors of horror movie fame, the tiny fish at Dr Spafish are here to help by stripping away dead skin instead.

The toothless miniature carp, nicknamed doctor fish or nibble fish, are used at spas in Turkey, Greece and the US – and now Norwich – as pedicurists that smooth your skin to baby softness.

The toothless fish nibble away at dead skin, stripping away dry and rough areas, and are even used as treatment for the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis.

Which is where I come in. I have suffered from eczema and ichthyosis – dry, scaly skin – all my life, and despite my best efforts the itchy, unpleasant condition is a constant problem.

The “sandals vs shoes” debate is particularly fraught because of the often unsightly blotches on my ankles and the fact that the skin can crack and split easily if left unprotected.

I’ve tried pretty much everything to alleviate the symptoms, from dietary changes to tanning beds to obscure and expensive Chinese teas, but the condition is only partly controlled by steroid creams with unpleasant side effects.

But the fish pedicure offers some hope for softer and less itchy feet. Garra rufa fish therapy, sometimes called ichthyotherapy, has been used with some success in treating skin like mine.

The science behind fish therapy remains muddy despite its popularity. There are few clinical trials and little empirical evidence to show whether it works or not, though some dermatologists have said the basic idea is sound.

But anecdotes from around the world indicate that certainly some people have found it worthwhile braving the tickling fish repeatedly and have seen significant improvement in their skin – enough to make me feel it was worth giving it a try.

Norwich’s new fish pedicure centre, Dr Spafish, is offering the treatments for £10 for 15 minutes with your feet in the tank with up to 50 garra rufa fish.

“It’s not a cure,” said Dr Spafish director John Mills. “You need to check with your doctor before you try it, and it won’t clear up completely in just one treatment.

“But we have met people with very serious psoriasis who swear by it and have the treatment time and time again.”

Mr Mills and his two fellow directors first tried the treatment while on holiday in Turkey, and fell in love with the idea.

“You saw whole families getting together to do it,” he said. “It’s relaxing and pleasant for mum and dad, and great fun for the children too.”

The three friends decided to bring the business back to their home city of Norwich – with a few modifications to make it a little more sanitary.

In contrast to some other spas where visitors share one large tank full of fish, Dr Spafish has individual pools with comfortable seats.

And rather than the natural unfiltered pools of water where the treatment originated in Kangal and Silvas in Turkey, the 16,000 litres of water in Norwich is filtered and purified constantly to ensure no bacteria survive.

Dr Spafish is the first salon in the country to offer hand treatments as well as feet, and the directors are already discussing providing full-body treatment and giving more people the chance to face the fish. The short time slots and the spa’s location in Castle Mall make the pedicures an excellent option for busy shoppers looking for beauty on a budget.

“The fish are fed nightly on pellets – they can’t survive on skin alone,” said Mr Mills. “They’re very inquisitive and energetic – they’ll jump out of the tanks if you don’t cover them.”

The feisty fish certainly lived up to their reputation as I lowered my feet gently into the water, thronging around my toes and heels and causing me to make a few undignified squeaking noises as the tickly creatures got to work.

Being food for the fishes was surprisingly good fun. The sensation was deeply peculiar, like a bad bout of pins and needles, but not unpleasant at all, and came without the stinging, scratching sensations I experience from exfoliating treatments and pumice stones.

Once I managed to relax it was easy to forget that my miniature masseuses came with gills and fins, and as time passed I even started to get interested in the fish themselves – fun and fascinating creatures that are calming to watch as they work on your toes.

Although it’s too early to tell whether it will improve my eczema dramatically, my feet were noticeably smoother when I shook off the last tenacious fish and dried them off.

The hard calluses on my toes are visibly softer, and even the stubborn patch of sandpapery dryness on my heels is significantly less abrasive.

And although the miniature minnows’ micro massage does not quite compare to swimming with dolphins, it might just be the perfect budget alternative.

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