Hydrotherapy is a term coined for the use of water for healing or medicinal purposes. It's a fairly common practice in the health and wellness community, due to water therapy's widespread accessibility in places such as spas. Who hasn’t soaked in a hot tub for hours after a plunge in icy cold water, relaxed in a sauna room, or taken a plunge in a natural spring?
This ancient therapeutic practice dates back hundreds of years. For instance, the ancient Greeks would indulge in water bathing rituals where they'd infuse the water with mint, juniper, and other botanicals to help cleanse the mind and body's systems. Whereas the Romans created an entire process!
They believed that the correct order was to first visit a tepidarium to soothe muscles and help with circulation, and digestion. After that, they'd move on to the caldarium to promote sweating and open capillaries, similar to modern-day saunas. And lastly, they would finish with a trip to the frigidarium for a cold water plunge to close pores and stimulate the immune system.
The typical roman bathhouses were the inception of hydrotherapy spa treatments. The public bathhouses were commonly built on large natural springs, which at the time were believed to provide healing from the gods. After removing their robes, bathers would pass through a series of temperature-specific rooms: from warm to hot, and then hot to cold. As bathers traveled through these distinct areas of the bathhouses they would receive alternative treatments such as massages.
Modern-day water therapy treatments are comparable to the traditional roman bathhouses in the sense that bathers move from saunas to jacuzzis, and finalize the circuit in cold plunge pools. Moreover, similarly to the Romans, heading to your local spa circuit is a communal event.
There’s a designated order for the hydrotherapy circuit to afford bathers with a long list of health benefits. With its ability to restore, manage, and improve your mental and physical health, water is an incredible resource because we can tap into its benefits right from the convenience of our own home.
What is hydrotherapy?
Ultimately, hydrotherapy is the use of water therapy to relieve discomfort or pain and to support overall health and wellbeing. Hydrotherapy normally includes treatments such as; contrast therapy, saunas, hot and cold showers, foot baths, steam baths, and physical water therapy.
Practitioners and physiotherapists often use water therapy for conditions for instance in the case of rheumatic ailments. And even though aqua aerobics may come to mind, water therapy as a treatment protocol is extremely different. The movements are a lot slower and tend to be more concentrated on the location of your body that needs extra support. The controlled and slow movements also help to generate a relaxing and soothing effect.
Although hydrotherapy treatments are unique and differ from person to person, the common denominator and key player is water.
Types of hydrotherapy
Water therapy can take place anywhere from a health center, spa, medical facility, or even at home with something as simple as a walk-in bath. Some common types of hydrotherapy include;
Contrast Hydrotherapy: This form of water therapy was invented by Sebastian Kneipp in the early 19th century. Contrast therapy focuses on alternating temperatures from hot to cold water to decrease inflammation, enhance circulation, and promote lymphatic drainage. Many people choose to include this treatment in their daily shower routine, as it's something so simple that can be done from home.
Hydrotherapy Pool: This form of therapy includes specific exercises that are undertaken in a warm-water swimming pool. The average water temperature is normally 33-36ºC, which is ultimately warmer than a regular pool and more similar to the water temperature you'd receive in a bath. The heated water can provide gentle relief to arthritis and back pain while at the same time enabling some resistance without needing to fight gravity.
Wraps or Compresses: This type of hydrotherapy involves using flannels or towels soaked in water. Warm compresses can help to promote blood flow and good circulation, which can relieve stiff and sore muscles. Whereas room temperature wraps focus on reducing inflammation, and cold compresses are used for fevers, colds, and skin ailments. The hydrotherapy benefits occur due to covering the body in wet compresses, then layering these with blankets and towels. This action activates the body's response to start sweating, thus allowing for toxin elimination and for blood circulation to increase.
Steam Rooms & Saunas: The main difference between these two treatments is that steam rooms are normally filled with humid air, whereas saunas use a dryer heat. Both encourage the body's sweating and perspiration mechanisms, which help with toxin excretion as well as easing muscle stiffness.
Warm Bath: This last form of hydrotherapy is easily the most widely used in a home setting. Soaking in a tub of warm water for approximately half an hour with added extras such as Epsom salts, essential oils, or mineral mud can help support muscular-skeletal and skin conditions.
Hot VS Cold:
When it comes to hot vs cold and what temperature water works best for hydrotherapy there really isn't a one size fits all answer. The temperature ultimately depends on what kind of health benefit one is looking to promote.
Hydrotherapy's benefits are not only provided due to the pressure that's applied, but also from the alternating of temperatures. Warm water causes blood vessels to dilate and expand whereas cold water makes them contract.
Using both water temperatures in an alternating manner can help to pump and circulate blood through the entire body, thus helping to oxygenate effectively and remove toxins or dead cell matter built up in cells.
Overall the whole process of water therapy will leave you feeling rejuvenated.
The benefits of water therapy are well documented, particularly for supporting chronic pain conditions or ailments that are common amongst the elderly.
Here are the top 5 healing benefits of water therapy:
Supports the immune system:
As mentioned previously in this article, hydrotherapy can enhance circulation and the flow of white blood cells throughout the body. Subsequently, this allows the lymph, (which is a fluid containing infection-fighting cells) to circulate the body effectively. This action modulates the immune system, which can improve infection-fighting potential.
Stress relief is often overlooked when it comes to hydrotherapy benefits, yet reducing fight or flight mode can be of incredible value when managing other conditions or ailments in the body. Water therapy can be efficiently used to treat stress-induced illnesses thanks to its ability to lower blood pressure, modulate blood sugar levels, and enhance sleep-wake cycles.
Relieves pain and muscle tension:
Throughout our day-to-day lives, we're continually battling the impacts of gravity, which we sadly feel more as we age. Nonetheless, all this is lessened when we step into water. The feather-like weightlessness you feel during a water therapy treatment can improve your movement capabilities, reduce the tension held in the tissues and stress on joints, as well as contributing support for muscle discomfort.
This relief is primarily because water therapy can help to stimulate the discharge of endorphins, which are commonly known as the body's innate pain-reliever. This action is what reduces pain and soreness in the muscles. Many people, athletes included, use water therapy in the form of a long hot bath or shower as a way to recover post-work-out
Rehabilitation for injuries:
Hospitals are known to use water therapy successfully in the treatment of various conditions such as:
- Ankylosing Spondylitis
- Back Pain
- Hypermobility Syndrome
- Post fracture/orthopedic surgery
- Fibromyalgia syndrome
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
The use of hot water increases circulation which helps to reduce pain in a similar action to what we've noted in other points throughout this article. This has been shown to help repair injured tissues, decrease swelling and assist the rehabilitation of injured muscles and joints.
Water therapy treatments that promote sweating, such as saunas, steam rooms, or even hot showers and baths, are ultimately influencing the body's main detoxification pathways and consequently support the elimination of toxins. This mechanism has been shown to enhance detox processes and remove toxins from the body, but recent research has also started to indicate how this might lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
There’s a long list of ailment-specific support that can be delivered via the use of water therapy. Yet, to dig deep into all of the diseases that hydrotherapy can help we’d need a book and not a simple blog post.
Nevertheless, a 2014 review of academic literature concluded the following:
“Based on available literature, this review suggests that hydrotherapy was widely used to improve immunity and for the management of pain, CHF, MI, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, asthma, anorectal disorders, fatigue, anxiety, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, hyperthermia, labor, etc. It produces different effects on various systems of the body depending on the temperature of water and though these effects are scientifically evidence based, there is lack of evidences for the mechanism on how hydrotherapy improves these diseases, which is one of the limitations of hydrotherapy, and further studies are required to find the mechanism of hydrotherapy on various diseases.”
How can water therapy be used in cancer care?
There is growing evidence showing that continued exercise throughout cancer treatment can help reduce unpleasant side effects, and improves longevity. Exercising in water under guidance from a trained professional is a great way to obtain these benefits with the added peace of mind of strictly regulated water chemistry and dedicated hydrotherapy swimming pool.
Water therapy exercising permits people with restricted mobility or chronic pain to develop strength without placing too much strain on the body, making it perfect for lymphedema therapy. The weightlessness of water produces an effect on the musculoskeletal system that makes movement more comfortable. Warm water hydrotherapy pools loosen the muscles, improve flexibility, and can support people while getting aerobic exercise notwithstanding their physical limitations. Yet, very hot water should be avoided by patients with lymphedema as too much heat can worsen symptoms.
Another thing to note is that the hydrostatic pressure from water therapy can be especially useful for individuals with lymphedema because it produces a compressive influence on the body that decreases swelling. Moreover, hydrostatic pressure renders resistance that strengthens muscles and enhances respiratory and cardiac conditioning.
Ways to use hydrotherapy at home
- Compresses:The application of a compress is a simple type of water therapy that can be easily used anywhere and by anyone. Cold compresses can support the reduction of swelling, manage headaches, and calm irritated skin. Warm compresses stimulate blood flow, relax muscles, and treat infections. And compresses don't have to be boring! You can add essential oils such as lavender or ylang-ylang, or even carrier oils such as castor oil for enhanced benefits and relaxing aromas.
- Contrast baths: This method is most common among athletes because alternating from hot to cold can help soothe muscle aches and pains. For instance, in the case of problematic hands and wrists, an uncomplicated forearm bath can serve as a water therapy treatment. The process would go as follows: immerse hands into the hot water for three minutes, then remove them and place them in the cold water for two minutes. Alternate this same sequence at least four times, moving from hot to cold. The same rule applies to all other regions of the body, or when considering a full-body contrast therapy via alternating shower temperatures or shower-to-bath.
- Showers: These magical water therapy tools are often underestimated when compared to their counterpart bathtub, yet showers can be an effective form of hydrotherapy, especially when considering the ease of alternating temperatures. Changing the temperature from cold to hot and vice versa can refresh and energize all bodily systems. And while on the topic of showers, it's important to note that shower heads can make a huge difference and are an easy attachment to swap out. Massage showerheads, rain showerheads... There are so many options! Do some market research and pick the one that you think will suit your needs best.
- Jet baths: As I'm sure you're aware of by this point, baths or full-body submersion therapies are the most common of hydrotherapy. This is because bathing allows you some time to be present, calm your mind as you soak in the pressurized tub. Adding Epsom salts or essential oils that deliver calming properties such as jasmine, rose, or lavender to your jet bath can help enhance the relaxation benefits and make it a more spa-like treatment in the comfort of your own home. Use the water jets to direct pressure to sore, injured, or tight muscle areas for three to five minutes.
- Footbath: An herbal-infused foot bath is a simple way to soothe fatigued feet and speed up the recovery time from overuse or exercise. Fill a tub large enough to submerge your feet in, all the way to the tops of the ankles. Add some Epsom salts and a couple of drops of your favorite essential oil or an herbal tea bag. Then soak your feet in the water bath for approximately 15 minutes, and when the time comes remove your feet and massage them with lotion before slipping into some comfy slippers or socks.
Water therapy has various applications as a complementary treatment to standard therapy.
Relaxing hydrotherapy techniques, such as foot baths and saunas, can help relieve stress and allow a person to unwind or ease painful symptoms. In each case, it's still important to work with your healthcare provider to determine the most suitable methods for your unique case.
Everything you need to know about hydrotherapy
What is hydrotherapy?
Hot vs Cold
Supports the immune system:
Relieves pain and muscle tension:
How can water therapy be used in cancer care?