At 'Medical Spas,' Botched Treatments Are on the Rise, but Spa-Goers Can Take Steps to Protect Themselves

March 7, 2007 — - It used to be that salons were just for hair and nails. Now, Americans are undergoing all sorts of procedures at so-called "medical spas," from laser hair removal to Botox injections to skin bleaching.

Business is booming. Since 1999, the number of medical spas in the country has grown from just one to more than 2,000.

But procedures can be dangerous, even deadly, if they're performed by the wrong hands. The American Society for Dermatologic Surgery (ASDS) says it has seen a 41 percent rise in botched treatments. The damage done can last a lifetime.

Jordan Miles, a 52-year-old stay-at-home mom, has seen the ugly side of medical spas. She went to one in Panama City, Fla., for what she thought was a routine procedure -- she received laser treatments to remove sunspots on her back and chest.

She was told the procedure would be relatively quick and painless.

"They put a topical ointment on my skin called Leveline, which intensified the laser," Miles said. "After it was over, I was already burning. During [the treatment], it was very excruciating pain, but I was lead to believe that this was normal."

The pain, which she said felt like someone pressing hot curling irons in to her back, was not normal. After leaving the spa, she said that her back was on fire and that she was vomiting from the severe pain. When she finally looked in a mirror, Miles was shocked at what she saw.

"It looked like raw meat. I had horrendous blisters all over it. It was in a zebra-stripe type pattern. It was scary," she said.

Problems on the Rise

Miles went to a dermatologist who told her she had second and third degree burns all over her chest and back. She later learned that her tanned skin might have been more vulnerable to the lasers, but she said the technician did not test her skin first.

"No one ever gave me any warning signs," she said. "No one ever did a patch test."

Miles isn't alone. With the popularity of spas that also perform medical procedures, the number of reported problems is also on the rise.

"Oftentimes people don't understand that when they got to a medi-spa, that medical produces are being performed, so when they get something done it's often with [an] untrained practitioner with inadequate supervision and often in an unsafe setting," said Liz Vaccariello, editor in chief of Prevention magazine, which profiles medical spa problems in its current issue. "That can be a dangerous combination."

For Miles, it was a dangerous combination with permanent consequences. Since her botched treatment, she's been unable to enjoy the outdoors as she used to.

"I live in a city in an area in Florida where sun and boating is our pastime. I'm unable to do many of those things now because I'm not supposed to get out on the sun. I'm more susceptible to cancer," she said. "And I know that by getting out I'm putting myself at risk. Those were the things that I loved to do."

Treat Spa Procedures Like Surgery

Alastair Carruthers, president of the ASDS, advises people to consider medical spa treatments like they would a surgery.

"You have to be just as vigilant as you would be with any medical procedure. If they are not done properly, you could be facing lifelong consequences, or even death," he said. "Before you even make an appointment, you have to do your homework and find out what the facility you're using is like. See what its reputation is. Call the Better Business Bureau. You should take this just as seriously as if you were going in for surgery."

Carruthers said it's crucial that a physician -- not a dentist, not a technician -- be on site at a medical spa.

"It's not enough that you have technicians on hand that know how to run the machines. The facility must have a doctor on site when you are getting your treatment, in case any problems whatsoever arise," he said. "Before you even get to the treatment level, a physician or physician's assistant should take down your complete medical history to make sure the procedure you are undergoing won't be a problem."

As one of the original developers of Botox, Carruthers wants people to be especially weary of cheap Botox treatments. Low-priced injections of the wrinkle-erasing substance can be a sign of ineffective treatment or untrained technicians.

"Often people come to me and say, 'I can tell I got a little bit of effect, but not as much as expected,' and that's because the amount given was insufficient or the Botox was diluted," Carruthers said. "But at least any problem there will disappear in a few weeks or months. With lasers, the problems can be lifelong."

Be Aware of Discomfort

Medical spa-goers should be aware of warning signs, like an unbearable amount of discomfort during laser treatments, similar to what Miles experienced.

"If there is excessive pain, where you're feeling like 'Wow, I really don't think I can take this,' then get up and walk out. No procedure should be that painful, and if it is, something is wrong and must be looked at immediately and the treatment stopped," Carruthers said. "Also, if your skin is suddenly turning lots of different colors, something is wrong."

Carruthers cautioned that those with tan or dark skin must be especially careful with laser treatments. Lasers work by targeting spots that are darker than the skin itself. If all the skin is dark, the laser blasts everything.

"If you have dark skin or a tan, and if you're skin is darker than usual, let the facility know. It you are a person of color, ask if the facility has a track record of people with skin like yours," Carruthers said. "And best of all, see if there is any one on staff with dark skin. Be bold: Ask them if they have had a treatment there. You want to be absolutely positive the facility knows you have special needs."

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