What is Hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy
 Goodluz/Getty Images

Hydrotherapy is the use of water, both internally and externally and at varying temperatures, for health purposes. Also known as water therapy, hydrotherapy includes such treatments as saunas, steam baths, foot baths, contrast therapy, hot and cold showers, and water therapy.

History of Hydrotherapy

From Roman baths to hot mineral springs, cultures around the world have used water for centuries to treat a variety of health concerns.

Father Sebastian Kneipp, a 19th-century Bavarian monk, is said to be the father of modern hydrotherapy. Kneipp's use of alternating hot and cold water (called contrast hydrotherapy) is still used today. Hydrotherapy is popular in Europe and Asia, where people "take the waters" at hot mineral springs. 

Principles of Hydrotherapy

According to proponents of hydrotherapy, cold water causes superficial blood vessels to constrict, moving blood flow away from the surface of the body to organs. Hot water causes superficial blood vessels to dilate, activating sweat glands, and removing waste from body tissues.

Alternating hot and cold water is thought to decrease inflammation and stimulate circulation and lymphatic drainage.

Types of Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy is often done at health centers, spas, or at home. Common types include:

Watsu - An aquatic massage where the therapist uses massage techniques while you float comfortably in a warm water pool.

Sitz bath - A sitz bath involves two adjacent tubs of water, one warm and one cool. You sit in one tub with your feet in the other tub, and then alternate. Sitz baths are recommended for hemorrhoids, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and menstruation problems.

Warm water baths - Soak in warm water for up to 30 minutes, depending on the condition. Epsom salts, mineral mud, aromatherapy oils, ginger, moor mud, and dead sea salts may be added.

Steam bath or Turkish bath - Steam rooms are filled with warm, humid aid. The steam is said to help the body release impurities.

Sauna - The dry, warm air promotes sweating.

Compresses - Towels are soaked in warm and/or cool water and then placed on a particular area on the body. Cool compresses reduce inflammation and swelling, while warm compresses promote blood flow and ease stiff and sore muscles.

Wraps - While lying down, cold wet flannel sheets are used to wrap the body. The person is then covered with dry towels and then blankets. The body warms up in response and dries the wet sheets. It's used for colds, skin disorders, and muscle pain.

Contrast hydrotherapy - At the end of a shower, turn the temperature down to a level you can comfortably tolerate (it shouldn't be icy cold). Turn the water off after 30 seconds (some people alternate between warm and cool water for up to three cycles, always ending with cool water).

Warming socks - Take a pair of wet cotton socks, wet them thoroughly, wring them out and put them on your feet. Then put a dry pair of wool socks over them and go to bed. Remove them in the morning. The cold, wet socks are said to improve circulation in the body and help ease upper body congestion.

Hot fomentation - For treatment of acute conditions such as chest colds and coughs. It is said to relieve symptoms but also decrease the length of the illness.

Hydrotherapy pool exercises - Exercising in a warm-water pool. The warm water allows you to exercise without fighting gravity and offers gentle resistance. It's considered helpful for back pain, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal conditions. Unlike water aerobics, hydrotherapy exercises tend to be slow and controlled. Often done under the guidance of a physiotherapist.

Hydrotherapy Benefits and Uses

Here's a look at several findings from the available research on the potential health benefits of hydrotherapy:

Osteoarthritis

In a study published in Clinical Rehabilitation in 2018, researchers compared the effectiveness of twice-weekly individual aquatic exercise sessions to once a week group patient education in people with knee osteoarthritis. After the eight week treatment period, those doing the aquatic exercises had improved pain and function.

For a report published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, researchers analyzed previously published studies (including a total of 1190 participants) on the effects of aquatic exercise in people with knee and/or hip osteoarthritis. They found that aquatic exercise may cause a small, short-term improvement in pain, disability, and quality of life.

Recovery After Athletic Activity

Cold water immersion and contrast water therapy may help with certain aspects of recovery after team sports, according to a report published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2017. For the report, researchers analyzed previously published studies and found that cold water immersion was beneficial for neuromuscular recovery and fatigue 24 hours following team sports.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Hydrotherapy with conventional drugs may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, according to a study published in the International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases in 2017. For the study, participants with rheumatoid arthritis received hydrotherapy with conventional medication or conventional medication alone for 12 weeks. At the study's end, the group receiving hydrotherapy had an improvement in antioxidant levels and oxidative stress.

Precautions

Hydrotherapy may not be appropriate in certain circumstances:

  • Cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure - Increased blood flow may put additional stress on the heart
  • Fever
  • Inflammation - Warming may not be recommended for acute injuries.
  • Kidney disease
  • Cancer
  • Pregnancy
  • Decreased sensitivity to hot and/or cold

It's a good idea to check with your health care provider before using hydrotherapy.

Keep in mind that hydrotherapy shouldn't be used as a substitute for standard care in the treatment of any health condition.

The Takeaway

Many of us already use hydrotherapy in our lives, whether it's taking a warm bath or shower to unwind or putting an ice pack on a swollen or painful area. There are many types of hydrotherapy, with some being done at home or by a professional to complement your current treatment regimen.

Was this page helpful?
View Article Sources