Hydrotherapy: Ancient Treatments For Modern Maladies

Got water? Then you have one of the oldest and most natural treatments available. Hydrotherapy, the therapeutic use of water, dates back to ancient Roman and Greek traditions. It was popularized in the 1800’s by Sebastian Kneipp and is currently making a comeback in modern holistic health care as an easy and effective treatment for many common conditions.

The concept is basic: heat expands tissues and cold contracts them. When hot water is applied to the body, local blood vessels dilate and muscles relax. Increased circulation brings more oxygen, nutrients and immune cells to affected areas, promoting healing.

In contrast, cold applications constrict local blood vessels, which reduces swelling and inflammation. While blood flow to the skin is decreased, blood flow to internal organs is increased, supporting normal body functions such as digestion and detoxification. Cold temperatures also increase muscle tone and have a numbing effect on nerves, which relieves pain.

Inexpensive and user-friendly, most hydrotherapy treatments can be performed at home. There are just a few fundamental rules: take caution not to burn skin when applying heat, never begin a treatment when feeling chilled and take time to rest afterward. Common treatments include constitutional hydrotherapy, alternating hot and cold applications, ice packs, warm compresses, therapeutic baths and steam inhalation.

Constitutional Hydrotherapy

This treatment increases circulation throughout the body, stimulates the immune system, improves digestion and promotes detoxification. Five minutes of hot moist towels are followed by ten minutes of cold moist towels, first applied to the chest, then the back, while the body is wrapped in a cotton sheet and two wool blankets. During colds and flu, using this treatment before bed promotes deep and healing sleep, and may shorten the duration of illness. It can also be used to relieve stress and heal chronic disease.

Alternating Hot and Cold Applications

Like constitutional hydrotherapy, these applications use alternating hot and cold water, but for shorter periods of time. Specific areas of the body are treated, rather than the whole constitution. Three minutes of hot applications are followed by 30 seconds of cold applications for at least three cycles. Moist towels, basins or water spray may be used to deliver treatments to painful joints and muscles or chronic injuries.

Ice packs and Warm Compresses

Ice wrapped in a moist cloth can relieve pain and inflammation when applied to acute injuries like sprains and bursitis. Warm compresses can relax sore muscles and resolve muscle cramps, but should not be used on acute injuries until initial inflammation subsides.

Therapeutic Baths

Baths can have therapeutic benefits based on temperature, application and additives. Sitz baths involve submerging the hips in hot and cold water to increase circulation to the pelvis. This can be helpful in the treatment of constipation, hemorrhoids and conditions of the bladder, uterus and prostate. Foot baths increase circulation to the feet and can draw congestion away from the head, relieving headaches and symptoms of sinusitis and upper respiratory infections. A tub full of warm water and 2 cups of mineral-rich Epsom salt can deliver medicine like magnesium to the whole body, relieving sore muscles and promoting good sleep.

Steam Inhalation

Inhaling steam gives the respiratory tract a hot, moist bath. It can help fight infections, expectorate phlegm and relieve congestion. Breathing through the nose treats nasal passages and sinuses, while breathing through the mouth treats the throat and bronchi. Essential oils can be added to the water for additional therapeutic benefits.

Considerations of Caution

Pregnant women and individuals with cancer, Raynaud’s disease, loss of sensation, peripheral vascular disease, skin conditions and heart or circulatory diseases should talk to their doctor before using these treatments.