If you’ve ever used ice on a sprain, melted tension by soaking in a hot tub, draped a hot towel over a stiff neck or soaked aching and tired feet in a basin of warm water, then you have engaged in the ancient healing art known as Hydrotherapy (water therapy). Using water at various temperatures and states to help the body heal is a practice that probably goes back to the beginning of time and there is documentation that dates back as far as 4,000 B. C. to support this. Hydrotherapy was officially regarded as a healing discipline in the 1800s when Vincent Preissnitz, a German farmer, used cold wet compresses to heal his badly injured hand and broken ribs. He then started treating his friends and neighbours and as the news of his impressive clinical successes spread, the Crown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire set aside its customary regulations for medical training and allowed him to practice this healing art despite protests from practicing physicians.
Robert Wesselhoeft, a patient whom Preissnitz had cured of Rheumatic Fever emigrated to America in 1840 and introduced the practice there where he established the Brattleboro Infirmary in Vermont with the assistance of his brother in 1845. In 1876 John Harvey Kellogg, the famed health reformer and inventor of Corn Flakes, opened a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan and treated his patients with hydrotherapy and nutrition. Hydrotherapy is generally considered to be one of the cornerstones of naturopathic medicine known to trigger the body’s basic healing mechanisms.
The different forms of Hydrotherapy employ the use of water at different temperatures, ice, steam baths and inhalation, showers and hot towels to create different physiological reactions. Some forms of hydrotherapy simply improve circulation which is important in stimulating the body’s healing process. Other illnesses such as sinusitis, colds and coughs respond to steam inhalation because the steam helps decongest the swollen mucous membranes in the upper respiratory tract. Hydrotherapy that uses water in its solid state, ice, can provide effective pain relief as it slows down the ability of the nerves to transmit pain. Moist heat hydrotherapy is useful in the treatment of muscle aches, spasms and cramps (including menstrual cramps). Soaking in a hot (not scalding) tub of water has a soothing effect that has been recognised for centuries.
Therapeutic baths come in three temperature ranges: Cold (13 to 24 degrees Celsius), Neutral (33 to 36 degrees Celsius) and Hot (41 to 43 degrees Celsius). Cold baths give a stimulating boost and a popular practice in Sweden is to take a plunge into cold water after a session in the sauna. The cold temperature serves as a brisk tonic that strengthens circulation and digestion and it is advised that such cold baths should be taken for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Patients with hypertension or heart problems and those who are ill and weak should avoid such baths without seeking the advice of a doctor. Neutral (tepid) baths are at body temperature and are known as nature’s finest tranquilizer perfect for easing oneself into sound sleep. Skin irritation can be soothed with tepid baths by the addition of 2 cups of finely pulverised oatmeal or other products such as Aveeno and 1 to 2 drops of Juniper berry oil. A tepid bath may be used to relieve sore muscles by adding Epsom salts to it or as a skin treatment by adding Baking soda. Hot tubs are useful for treating muscle spasms and relieving tension. The water should be as hot as is tolerable and it is advisable to place a cool wet towel on the forehead to offset the rush of blood from the head. A treatment should last about 20 minutes and as the temperature cools, more hot water should be added to maintain it. It is very important to end a hot tub session with a cool shower to prevent fainting.
For intense immediate pain, ice is the treatment of choice. Applying an ice pack to a painfully stiff neck or muscle spasm provides dramatic pain relief. Ice may also be more effective than applying heat for relieving pain and swelling. Ice can slow the nerve’s ability to conduct painful stimuli breaking the vicious cycle of muscle spasm-pain-muscle spasm. Application of ice causes vessel to constrict (reflex vasoconstriction) which reduces the swelling caused by the leakage of fluid into the surrounding tissues. These physiological changes relax the muscles and thus break the spasms. When applying ice as a massage, short or circular strokes for about 3 to 4 minutes should be made and kept in motion to avoid frostbite. An ice pack may be applied to an injury for a maximum of 20 minutes and repeated every hour if necessary.
Steam is effective when combating a cold, sinusitis, flu and allergies. When steam is inhaled the moist warm air helps relieve inflamed mucous membranes, cough and irritation in the nose and throat and helps drain the sinuses. A shower could be used as a steam bath by turning on the hot water with the door closed and staying in the steam filled room for 15 minutes. An electric vaporizer may also be used or you can simply place boiling water in a bowl, cover your head with a towel and inhale the steam for 10 to 15 minutes.
Constitutional hydrotherapy describes the alternating applications of hot and cold wet towels. The use of this treatment lets the therapist direct and improve blood flow to specific areas of the body. A very powerful healing effect may be achieved when this treatment is combined with dietary changes and the use of supplements. The treatment is carried out in a reclined position by applying hot and moist towels over the chest and abdomen and after 5 minutes these are replaced by cold towels which are left on for 10 minutes. After this, the patient turns over and the same treatment is applied to the back with the entire session lasting about 30 minutes.
Hydrotherapy is widely used in physiotherapy for the rehabilitation of patients with orthopaedic and neuromuscular diseases. Movement is an important part of the recovery process for healing bones, muscles and nerves and in the early stages of recovery full weight bearing may be difficult or impossible due to pain and discomfort. Swimming in lukewarm water may aid recovery in some cases by encouraging limb movement, without the need for full weight bearing. A whirlpool is a special feature in some bathtubs that gives a special hydrotherapy experience. It causes water to spin in a circular motion around a central area. When combined with heat, it acts as an effective massage and stimulating treatment. Sitting in hot water alone or with salt added (sitz bath) is effective in treating haemorrhoids.