Hydrotherapy, formerly called hydropathy and also called water cure, is a part of alternative medicine (particularly naturopathy), occupational therapy, and physiotherapy, that involves the use of water for pain relief and treatment. The term encompasses a broad range of approaches and therapeutic methods that take advantage of the physical properties of water, such as temperature and pressure, for therapeutic purposes, to stimulate blood circulation and treat the symptoms of certain diseases.
Various therapies used in the present-day hydrotherapy employ water jets, underwater massage and mineral baths.
History of hydrotherapy
The therapeutic use of water has been recorded in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations. Egyptian royalty bathed with essential oils and flowers, while Romans had communal public baths for their citizens. Hippocrates prescribed bathing in spring water for sickness. Other cultures noted for a long history of hydrotherapy include China and Japan, the latter being centred primarily around Japanese hot springs or “onsen”. Many such histories predate the Roman thermae.
An important note on the growth of hydropathy is that it started to become prominent as traditional medical practice was becoming more professional in terms of how doctors operated, alienating many patients, as they felt that the medical encounter was becoming less personalized, and the more scientific the medical language became, the less that they could easily understand. Hydropathy was a return to a treatment that was spiritual and natural, making it more palatable to those who felt uncomfortable with the direction that traditional medicine was taking.
Importance of the sea
Beach benefits overflow. The sand exfoliates feet and tones muscles. The blue space effect calms, cools, lowers blood pressure and aids sleep. Mineral-rich seawater combined with moderate sun increases immunity, purifies and relaxes. The healing sea is specifically soothing for depression, psoriasis, dandruff, dermatitis and eczema. Sea air’s rich negative ions boost oxygenation, neutralise free radicals, reduce bacteria and increase immunity.
A tonic trip to the ocean has been prescribed since Dr Jacques de la Bonnardière coined the term “thalassotherapy” for coastal cures in the 1860s. Health seekers have flocked to the Black Sea, Baltic, Brittany and the Mediterranean for millennia. In many fashionable circles, spa cures became an annual must for mineral or hot spring hydrotherapy. When writer Mark Twain relieved his rheumatism at France’s thermal spa town Aix-les-Bains in 1891, he raved it was “so enjoyable that if I hadn’t had a disease I would have borrowed one just to have a pretext for going”.
Thalassotherapy is a form of hydrotherapy that involves the therapeutic use of ocean waters and marine products like algae, seaweed, and alluvial mud. The name comes from the Greek words thalassa (“the sea”) and therap (“treat”). The principle behind thalassotherapy is that repeated exposure to sea air and immersion in warm seawater, mud, clay, and protein-rich algae helps restore the body’s natural chemical balance. Seawater and human plasma are very similar. When immersed in warm seawater the body absorbs the minerals it needs through the skin.
Hydrotherapy includes an ocean of water treatments. Also known as aquatherapy or hydropathy, they involve internal and external modalities. Water is of varying depth, pressure, temperature and type. Douching, steam inhalation, enemas and colonics are included in internal hydrotherapy. External hydrotherapy encompasses exercise hydrotherapy, aquatic physiotherapy, aquatic massage, watsu, immersion baths, cryotherapy, steam, saunas, jacuzzis, float tanks, sitz baths, vichy showers, scotch hoses and hot and cold packs.
Anyone who enjoys water laps up hydrotherapy. Water wellness programs purify, stimulate and soothe, depending on the regimen. Water’s unique properties make it a miraculous medium for wellbeing. Aspects that account for the water therapy effect include anti-gravity, buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, temperature, modality and water quality.
- Weightlessness in water is an anti-gravity gift to those experiencing pain, pregnancy, obesity, misalignment, weakness and poor coordination.
- Buoyancy makes movement much easier in water than on the ground. It allows free-flowing movement for those limited on land, especially people recovering from surgery or injury. Water radically reduces weight on a recuperating area, thus making it a safe medium to explore movement. Hydrostatic pressure provides an even compressive force that minimises swelling and supports exercise. Dense water also provides greater resistance to tone and strengthen while encouraging stability.
- Temperature can be icy-cold or steamy-hot in hydrotherapy. Alternating hot and cold increases stimulation, immunity and cleansing of the lymphatic system. This “contrast hydrotherapy” helps in acute stages of injury by stimulating blood flow and reducing swelling.
How does it work?
Hydrotherapy relies on its mechanical and thermal effects, to induce healing. It takes advantage of the body’s reaction to cold or hot stimuli, the pressure exerted by water, the protracted application of heat as well as the sensation of the water. These sensations and effects are then carried deeper into the skin by nerves.
When this happens, these sensations stimulate the immune system, thus influencing the release of stress hormones, while improving digestion, circulation and blood flow, as well as reducing the body’s sensitivity to pain. In most circumstances, heat is used to soothe and quiet the body, while slowing down the activity of internal organs.
On the other hand, cold is used to invigorate and stimulate, thus increasing the body’s internal activity. Therefore, if you are suffering from anxiety and tense muscles, you should bathe with hot water. If you are feeling stressed out and tired, you should shower with hot water, followed by a short cold shower. This stimulates the mind and body.
Soaking in a hot tub after a cold day is delicious. Warm water melts muscle tension, increases range of movement, stimulates circulation, reduces swelling, soothes stress, eases pain, calms nerve sensitivity, decongests the respiratory tract, purifies pores and promotes sleep.
For centuries, cold water has been advocated by naturopaths and yogis for longevity and immunity. Take the ice bucket challenge and you’ll quickly feel the thrill of a chill. Coldwater, ice or cryotherapy stimulates the immune system, increases alertness, stimulates endorphins, boosts circulation, accelerates metabolism, tightens skin, reduces hair loss, speeds recovery time and increases athletic performance.
As the outer skin layer temperature is lowered, capillaries and blood vessels undergo vasoconstriction, immediately followed by vasodilation. This causes the body to release toxins and feel-good hormones. The body tries to regenerate heat after a cold shower, raising the metabolic rate and activating the immune system, which produces more white blood cells.
Research by Russian doctor Sergei Bubnovkiy showed that soaking one’s legs in icy water for 15 minutes a day improved immunity. Britain’s Thrombosis Research Institute discovered that people who take cold showers every day improved their number of white cells in the body. Renowned guru Yogi Bhajan explained why yoga advocates cold showers:
“When you take a cold shower your blood rushes out to meet the challenge. Capillaries open up and all the deposits have to go. It is a very cleansing process. Everywhere that the cold water hits, the blood will come. Everywhere you massage, rebuilding will occur and each cell of the body will be reconstructed.”
Special water can be a medicinal elixir. While soaking in the sea, ozone water, magnesium water or spring water, you absorb substances like a sponge. Seawater has trace minerals of magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium and iodine. These help to pull out impurities, relax muscles, soothe skin, boost immunity, ease arthritis, balance the thyroid, cleanse hair and clear the respiratory tract.
Rehabilitation with water
Water offers a world of relief and rehabilitation. Hydrotherapy is often prescribed as part of a program for prevention, peak performance or recovery. Pregnant women find water exercise eases back pain, promotes good posture and prepares the body for labour. They may even choose a waterbirth. Athletes turn to water for rapid recovery. Elderly people enjoy hydrotherapy as a safe way to stay fit without the risk of falling.
Hydrotherapy is liberating for those with involuntary muscle movement conditions such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, as the water slows while supporting the spontaneous movement and relaxes the participant. Hydrotherapy also helps to maintain muscle mass and flexibility in a safe zone. Exercises are more attainable in warm water for those suffering arthritis as they feel less pain and more flexibility in the supportive aqua environment.
Stay safe in the water
Hydrotherapy is safe in most circumstances, but seek medical advice if you have any of the following conditions: asthma, heart disease, skin infection, epilepsy, diabetes, incontinence, fever, high or low blood pressure, kidney failure, chlorine allergy or pregnancy. Before a session, it’s recommended not to eat a large meal or drink alcohol.
It’s important to drink plenty of pure water after hydrotherapy as it’s easy to underestimate the quantity of perspiration lost. Resting after a session integrates the healing effect and promotes rapid recovery from the strain. Wash off chlorine water thoroughly and moisturise your body with a natural oil such as hemp seed oil.
Care must be taken to keep core stability while in water and not to overextend, as water can make one wobbly and over-confident with movement. Weight-bearing can be increased in shallower water. Floatation devices are useful if you’re a weak swimmer, and water weights increase resistance training.
Wherever you wander, enjoy your water journey. As Rumi wrote,
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”