Hydrotherapy is the use of water as a therapeutic intervention. The use of various temperatures allows us to manipulate the use of water for treatment. The principal mechanism of hydrotherapy is to manipulate circulation, by both dilating and constricting the blood vessels, in a strategic fashion.
For example, if you’ve been to a spa with hot & cold baths, you’ve probably been encouraged to take a dip in the cold, follow it up with a warm bath, and repeat. That’s a form of contrast (quick temperature changes between hot & cold) hydrotherapy.
Here are some other examples in which you probably unknowingly use forms of hydrotherapy:
- You take a hot shower to help with muscle tension, or a tension headache.
- You take a cold shower to help with recovery after intense exercise.
- You use a steam shower to help with congestion.
- You apply a cold towel to your forehead when feeling faint.
- You take a warm bath to help with your menstrual cramps.
Anyway, you get the point. We use hydrotherapy all the time.
What are a few of the physiological reactions to cold water?
- Reduced local edema (swelling) and muscle spasms. (1)
- Increased local anesthetic effects. (1)
- Decreased heart rate and blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic). (2)
- Interestingly enough, one study monitored the effects of regular winter swimming (?!?!) on the mood of swimmers. After four months of ‘regular winter swimming,’ the swimmers (vs. the controls) found themselves to be more energetic than the controls, and swimmers who suffered from rheumatism, fibromyalgia or asthma reported that this winter swimming had actually helped relieve subjective pain. (3)
What are a few of the physiological reactions to warm water?
- Overall, relaxation of muscles and reduction of pain in certain arthritic conditions. (4) Being helpful with muscle relaxation, warm water responses are also implicated in sleep hygiene (and potentially, insomnia), as warm water is naturally sedating. (5, 6)
- Reduced frequency and severity of abdominal/colonic spasms. (7) This is pretty common knowledge as we often use heat when we have abdominal pain from menstrual cramps, indigestion, etc.
Different forms of hydrotherapy are utilized by NDs to treat both local and systemic conditions. For example, contrast hydrotherapy might be used locally to support circulation in a patient with peripheral neuropathy (changes in both sensation and function in the fingers and toes). Systemically, hydrotherapy has been studied in various conditions/settings like multiple sclerosis (8), fibromyalgia (9), pain during labour (10) and healing after an episiotomy (Sitz baths; 11).
Hydrotherapy is dynamic and can be used to support so many systems of the human body. To learn more about how hydrotherapy can be used therapeutically on various systems, I strongly encourage you to check out this free (and open-access) article, posted here:
Certain hydrotherapy practices (cold water immersion, contrast, etc.) are not indicated for everyone, and should always be discussed with your healthcare provider before attempting any hydrotherapy techniques.
(1) PMID: 8173566
(2) PMID: 10751106
(3) PMID: 15253480
(4) PMID: 17331241
(5) PMID: 12379298
(6) PMID: 20562619
(7) PMID: 12397274
(8) PMID: 21785645
(9) PMID: 18751709
(10) PMID: 17655985
(11) PMID: 2795277
(12) PMID: 24926444