A South Korean heat massage therapy has got thousands of sick Kenyans deeply hooked to its range of claimed medicinal benefits covering back pain, sinuses, arthritis, diabetes and prostrate complications.
The therapy, which is administered through a special bed or a waistline belt, uses electricity to run.
John Muthama, a 50-year-old clinical specialist, has become a disciple of the Korean therapy known as Nuga Best, which he says helped manage his arthritis condition, leaving him with painless joints.
Mr Muthama says he embarked on the therapy sessions upon returning to Kenya at the end of 2015 from the United States where he had worked for years and where bouts of cold winter only worsened his condition.
“Three months after I first went to Nuga, my pains had all but disappeared, I couldn’t believe it. As a medical specialist, I had no explanation for what had just happened given that arthritis has no known cure and can only be managed,” he said.
Mr Muthama said the bonus was the stabilisation of his blood pressure that has immensely improved his wellbeing.
“It promotes natural healing of the body through a combination of acupressure, massage, far infrared rays, negative ions and deep heat therapy,” Eric Nduguje, the regional co-ordinator of the therapy, said.
Promoters of Nuga Best, however, maintain that the therapy is no replacement for conventional treatment and only serves as a complimentary regimen.
The electric bed and belt are each embedded with tens of gemstones, which when heated release therapeutic rays that tackle respiratory illnesses, smoothen blood flow, cleanse skin pores and improve metabolism.
The emitted far infrared heat, which is like incubator heat, is considered to unclog body airways and bloodstream.
The treatment, which was first introduced to Kenya about four years ago, has continued to attract a major following, especially among the elderly, and those suffering from incurable conditions such as arthritis.
One of the Nuga centres at Old Nation House on Nairobi’s Tom Mboya Street, attests to the growing popularity of the therapy among working class, whose sedentary office lifestyle is known to cause many health challenges.
“Our 12 machines (beds) serve 168 people daily here,” said Mr Nduguje, the regional director. A TV remote-like gadget also embedded with stones can be placed on top of a cloth over the eyes to clear eye pains or one can sit on it for prostrate illness.
Each patient at the centre is allocated 40 minutes on the special bed but those who can afford to buy the bed are advised to do so.
What’s particularly interesting about the treatment however is that the therapy sessions are free of charge. One only needs to take with them a white T-shirt, the colour choice of which manages the electric heat during massage.
Nuga Best’s business model ensures that a customer tries out the massage beds for free in the hope that its outcomes will impress them and woo them into buying the kit for home use. The goal is to instil confidence in potential customers, who are free to walk away from the regimen anytime, unconditionally.
But critics have pointed out that the thermal therapy could be addictive, hence the bait for free services in the knowledge that the users will ultimately buy the expensive beds.
“The massage is like a sport, the body releases feel good hormones, it’s like going to the gym and failing to do so, you feel body changes,” said Mr Nduguje, who oversees 11 Nuga branches, two of which he owns through a franchise.
Experts in the field of bones, joints, muscles and nerves (orthopaedics) said the heat massage was suited for post-hospital, home care treatment, but could never be a substitute.
Prof John Atinga, an orthopaedic surgeon, said that thermal massage could soothe back pain and relax muscles, along with and a host of other spine and nerve complications, but is not a long -term solution to diseases.
“The benefit of this massage is that it offers pain relief and relaxation of the muscles, some form of physiotherapy. That, however, is as far as it goes. It will not cure a disease like arthritis should a patient stop their hospital medication,” said Prof Atinga.
Lifestyle diseases have recently become commonplace, especially among the aged, whose support falls on the shoulders of the working children.
Such a customer base has emerged as the driver of therapy equipment purchases for elderly parents upcountry, saving the old folks trips to urban towns.
The automatic massage costs Sh280,000 while the thermal belt goes for Sh39,900.
Mr Muthama, the clinical specialist who runs his own clinic in Nairobi’s Utawala estate, is among the customers who bought the bed for home care.
The dealers, however, did not wish to share the number of units sold so far choosing to maintain that it has been “a good number.”
“We’re aware of thermal massage equipment but not specifically Nuga,” the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, under whose scope such equipment falls, said.
The rush for the massage has given rise to an army of small-time independent merchants with a bed or two of the kits, who unlike Nuga branches, charge up to Sh1,000 per one-hour massage session.
The Korean therapy first entered Kenya in 2012 with a single office in South B Nairobi, but now has 60 branches across the country. It has over the years opened offices in Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa, Kericho and Machakos using the franchising model.
The shops are operated by Kenyan investors, who are supplied with the equipment centrally from Korea.
Mr Nduguje says the aim is to grow the branches to 100 by end of next year, upon which the Korean firm will set into the motion plans to set up a local assembly plant for the electric beds.
Currently, all the equipment is shipped in from Korea, every two months and stocked in warehouses at the firm’s regional headquarters in Westlands, Nairobi.
Several hospitals, including St Francis Kasarani, on the outskirts of the city centre, have bought the beds.
While the beds are used by all people, the thermal belts are, especially popular with women. It is fastened around the waistline for purposes of clearing excess tummy fats and manage conditions such as fibroids.
The Korean therapy has quickly become a honeypot among the sick who are on the lookout for alternative remedies to their stubborn conditions. It’s a blend of Oriental and Western medicine, and taps into the healing properties of heated gemstones.
Nuga uses tormanium stone, which is a composition of four therapeutic stones crashed into powder then heated at elevated temperatures to form a hard, soft stone.
The composition includes tourmaline gemstone, germanium, Elvan stone and volcanic rocks.