Hydrotherapy is the use of water, ice, steam, and hot and cold temperatures to maintain and restore health. The use of water as therapy goes back to the beginning of time. Ancient cultures including the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Hebrews, Hindus, Chinese, and Native Americans all used their form of hydrotherapy for cleansing and health promotion.
These treatments may have included baths, Jacuzzis, steam, saunas, mineral tubs, wraps, rubs, flushes, enemas, colonic irrigations, douches, sitz baths, and compresses.
Hydrotherapy uses water for the treatment, not because it has magical healing properties but because it is an easy way to give hot and cold applications to the patient. Hydrotherapy treatments use hot and cold applications in very specific ways to change the circulation in the arteries, veins, lymph, muscles, and organs. The therapy may even affect the nerves.
Hot water applied to the body can increase circulation, stimulate white blood cells, and may remove toxins in the tissues. Cold water decreases inflammation by causing the blood vessels to constrict and reduces the release of inflammation-causing chemicals.
A hydrotherapy treatment called contrast therapy may include using alternating hot and cold water. A hot wet towel, which draws blood to the surface, is placed on the patient for up to five minutes. The cold towel that follows first pushes the blood away from the surface and then draws it back to the surface. The strength of the treatment can be increased by the temperature difference between hot and cold. The greater the difference in temperature, the stronger the effect on the body.
The idea is that the hot and cold applications cause a large increase in the circulation, almost acting as a pump to get the blood moving again. Other effects of the contrast treatment include an increase in oxygen delivered to the tissues, an increase in removal of waste products, and an increase in white and red blood cells in the area.
Hydrotherapy is most often used by Western medicine doctors to treat strains, sprains, and fevers. Alternative medicine has used various forms of hydrotherapy as part of the treatment for many diseases, including: ear infections, digestive problems, fatigue, depression, menstrual problems, and headaches. It may also be used to treat anxiety, bronchitis, poor immune function, fibromylagia, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. Hydrotherapy may be a part of a detoxification program for most chronic health problems.
People with the following conditions should talk with their doctor before having a hot/cold hydrotherapy treatment: heart disease, low or high blood pressure, pregnancy, diabetes, poor blood circulation, or peripheral neuropathy. People with multiple sclerosis may not tolerate the hot part of treatment while people with asthma may not tolerate the cold part of treatment.
For more information:
1. Burton Goldberg Group: Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide. Future Medicine Publishing, Puyallup, WA; 1994.
2. Inglis B & West R: The Alternative Health Guide. Alfred A. Knopf, NY, NY; 1983.
3. Kastner MA: Alternative Healing: The Complete A to Z Guide to Over 160 Different Alternative Therapies. Halcyon Publishing, La Mesa, CA; 1993.
4. Sifton DW: The PDR Family Guide to Natural Medicines and Healing Therapies. Three Rivers Press, NY, NY; 1999.
5. Woodham A & Peters D: Encyclopedia of Healing Therapies, 1st ed. Dorling Kindersley, NY, NY; 1997.