Hydrotherapy involves the therapeutic use of water to treat or prevent disease. Hydrothermal therapy uses warm or hot water, as in hot baths, saunas, or wraps.

Historical Perspective

Hydrotherapy and hydrothermal therapy are traditional treatments that were used in ancient Greek, Rome, China, Japan and the Americas.  A Bavarian monk, Father Sebastian Kneipp helped re-popularize the therapeutic use of water in the 19th century.

How it works

The recuperative properties of hydrotherapy exploit the body's reaction to heat and cold.  Heat, if felt to stimulate the immune system, influencing the production of stress hormones, invigorating the circulation, aid digestion, encourage blood flow, and lessening pain.

In a study of 40 persons at University of Minnesota, 85% of the participants preferred a whirlpool bath to a still bath. Only whirlpool was effective in reducing the participants' reactivity to stress although both still and whirlpool baths were effective in reducing anxiety.

Risks, Cautions, and Contraindications

Persons with impaired temperature sensation run the risk of scalding suffering frostbite from hot or cold baths.  If you have diabetes, avoid hot application to the feet or legs. Also avoid full body heating treatments, such as body wraps. Avoid cold application If if you are diagnosed with Raynaud's disease. Elderly people and young children may be exhausted by too much heat and should avoid long full-body hot treatments such as immersion baths and saunas. If you are pregnant or have heart disease, consult a doctor before taking a sauna.

When a condition is recurrent or persistent, consult your physician to determine whether a physical therapy of this type is suitable in your case.

Common techniques

A number of techniques are available under the general heading of hydrotherapy. These include: baths and showers, neutral baths, sitz baths, contrast sitz baths, foot baths, cold mitten friction rub, steam inhalation, hot compresses, cold compresses, alternating hot and cold compresses, heating compresses, body wrap, wet sheet pack, and salt glow.

Back douche. Useful for the treatment of weakened back muscles, back pain, spinal disease, multiple sclerosis, bronchial asthma, nearly all diseases of the lung. Warning: Do not use in debilitated patients or those with neurasthenia.

Neck douche. Useful for headaches, migraines, tenseness in the shoulder and neck, hypersensitivity to changes in the weather, mild depression, tinnitus, vertigo, arthrosis of the hand and finger joints. Warning: Not to be used in persons with high blood pressure, enlargement of the thyroid, or raised intraocular pressure.

Sauna and Steam Bath.  Saunas and steam baths are similar in effect; the decision to take one rather than the other will be guided by personal preference. In a sauna the heat acts more quickly to eliminate toxins through the skin, though some consider the moist air of a steam bath to have a more satisfying effect on the respiratory system. Saunas are deeply relaxing and are a great way to melt away stress.  Do not spend more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time in a sauna. Wipe your face frequently with a cold cloth to avoid overheating.

Warm packs. A wrapping cloth is soaked in a hot infusion or decoction of herbs, then wrung out and applied to the patient's body. Alternatively, the wrap may receive a coating of hot mud mustard flour, or fango. As a further alternative, hayseed may be placed in a sack and steamed.  Indications: Painful chronic diseases such as arthrosis, back pain, renal disease, or cystitis, and for stimulating blood flow. Warning: Always check that the temperature is tolerable before applying a wrap.

Hydrotherapy for Healing Diseases/Conditions




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Last modified: 07/31/08