By Vic Walker
Water has been used in medicinal and/or therapeutic treatments for centuries. Sebastian Kneipp, a 19th century Bavarian monk, is sometimes said to be the father of many hydrotherapy methods. While he wrote several books, one of the most popular is My Water Cure. He believed that disease could be cured by using water to eliminate waste from the body.
Many have experienced the common hot tub or have visited a day spa where water is used for relaxation and healing purposes. In fact, many of the most sought after vacation spots incorporate some sort of water attraction—whether natural or manmade. Society’s love affair with water is both natural and understandable as human life begins inside an aquatic environment; therefore, the tie to water, and its healing effects, can almost be considered genetic or instinctive.
There are several different forms of water therapy that are both external and internal, with many using temperature to achieve the desired results. The benefits are obviously physical in nature; however, there are physiological benefits as well.
The biggest advantage to most forms of hydrotherapy is they can be practiced in the privacy of the home. Many residential hot tubs and pools are used not only for recreation, but also for therapy. This is especially true with an aging population that is discovering the benefits of aquatic therapy and its ability to improve quality of life. Hot tubs, for example, which have powerful underwater hydrotherapy jets, are great for alleviating various ailments. When used regularly, hot tub bathing not only helps to remove toxins from inside the body, but also promotes better sleep and a balanced mental state.
Although pools and hot tubs are well-known for their therapeutic benefits, there are many other hydrotherapy techniques available that can effectively improve one’s overall health. The following will briefly explore some of the common, and not so common, aquatic therapy techniques currently being used.
Hydrotherapy in general terms
Formally called hydropathy, hydrotherapy is the generic term for aquatic therapies using jets, underwater massage, mineral baths, and hot and cold compresses for the relief of pain and the treatment of certain illnesses and ailments.
Synonymous with the term ‘water cure,’ which was used by practitioners in the 19th century, these treatments use water’s physical properties, e.g. temperature and pressure, for therapeutic purposes such as stimulating blood circulation and treating symptoms of certain diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Moving forward in time, modern sport medicines use hot and cold water therapies not only to relax athletes after events, but also to reduce swelling and speed healing when injury occurs.
Balneotherapy, which is derived from the Latin word balneum, meaning ‘bath,’ is the treatment of disease via bathing. This term is generally applied to any of the treatments performed at a wellness centre (i.e. spa facility) and refers to the medicinal use of a spa as opposed to their recreational use. This therapy often involves using hot or cold water, in addition to massage, to relax and/or stimulate bathers.
How water heals
When looking at the healing properties of hydrotherapy, they are generally best described in terms of their mechanical and/or thermal effects. These effects are caused by the body’s reaction to stimuli such as water pressure, hot and cold temperatures, protracted application of heat, and the general sensation of water. Once these stimuli occur, the nerves carry what is felt by the skin deeper into the body. These inputs are then responsible for influencing the production of stress-relieving hormones, encouraging blood flow, improving circulation and digestion, stimulating the immune system, and lessening the body’s sensitivity to pain.
In general, hot and cold therapies have different effects. Hot water is used to soothe the body and slow down the activity of internal organs, while cold water is used to stimulate and invigorate the body, and increase the activity of internal organs. For example, many people take warm baths or use hot tubs when experiencing tense muscles or anxiety as a way to relax. On the other hand, some take short, cold showers when feeling tired to stimulate the body and mind.
Water also has a hydrostatic effect and creates a massage feeling as it gently kneads the body. Moving water stimulates the touch receptors on the skin, whereby increasing blood flow and releasing tight muscles. Further, the weightlessness experienced when submerged in water relieves the body from the effects of gravity, which also aids circulation and improves the body’s ability to remove toxins from inside muscles and ligaments.