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Hydrotherapy Holisticonline.com

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What Is It?

Hydrotherapy is the use of water in the treatment of disease. Hydrothermal therapy additionally uses its temperature effects, as in hot baths, saunas, wraps, etc.

Historical Perspective

Hydro- and hydrothermal therapy are traditional methods of treatment that have been used for the treatment of disease and injury by many cultures, including those of ancient Rome, China, and Japan. Water therapy has been around for centuries. The ancient Greeks took therapeutic baths. Water is an important ingredient in the traditional Chinese and Native American healing systems.

A Bavarian monk, Father Sebastian Kneipp helped re-popularize the therapeutic use of water in the 19th century. There are now many dozens of methods of applying hydrotherapy, including baths, saunas, douches, wraps, and packs.

How it works

The recuperative and healing properties of hydrotherapy are based on its mechanical and/or thermal effects. It exploits the body's reaction to hot and cold stimuli, to the protracted application of heat, to pressure exerted by the water and to the sensation it gives. The nerves carry impulses felt at the skin deeper into the body, where they are instrumental in stimulating the immune system, influencing the production of stress hormones, invigorating the circulation and digestion, encouraging blood flow, and lessening pain sensitivity.

Generally, heat quiets and soothes the body, slowing down the activity of internal organs. Cold, in contrast, stimulates and invigorates, increasing internal activity. If you are experiencing tense muscles and anxiety from your stress, a hot shower or bath is in order. If you are feeling tired and stressed out, you might want to try taking a warm shower or bath followed by a short, invigorating cold shower to help stimulate your body and mind.

When you submerge yourself in a bath, a pool, or a whirlpool, you experience a kind of weightlessness. Your body is relieved from the constant pull of gravity. Water also has a hydrostatic effect. It has a massage-like feeling as the water gently kneads your body. Water, in motion, stimulates touch receptors on the skin, boosting blood circulation and releasing tight muscles.


Hydrotherapy and hydrothermal therapy are chiefly used to tone up the body, to stimulate digestion, the circulation, and the immune system, and to bring relief from pain. Description of indications are given under individual method used.

Water seems to have special powers in getting rid of stress and rejuvenating our body. It affects the skin and muscles. It calms the lungs, heart, stomach, and endocrine system by stimulating nerve reflexes on the spinal cord.

Proof it works

Various case reports, observational studies, and a number of controlled studies provide some evidence of success in the use of hydrotherapy.

In a study of 40 persons at University of Minnesota, 85% of the participants preferred a whirlpool bath to a still bath. Only whirlpool was effective in reducing the participants' reactivity to stress although both still and whirlpool baths were effective in reducing anxiety.

Risks, Cautions, and Contraindications

Please see under individual techniques for warnings and caution for the use and follow them.

Persons with impaired temperature sensation run the risk of scalding or frostbite at temperature extremes.

When a condition is recurrent or persistent, please consult your physician to determine whether a physical therapy of this type is suitable in your case.

  • If you have diabetes, avoid hot application to the feet or legs. Also avoid full body heating treatments, such as body wraps.
  • Avoid cold application if you are diagnosed with Raynaud's disease.
  • Hot immersion baths and long, hot saunas are not recommended for those with diabetes or multiple sclerosis, women who are pregnant or anyone with abnormally high or low blood pressure.
  • Don't take cold foot baths if you are prone to  bladder or rectal irritation. People suffering from sciatica, pelvic inflammation or rheumatism in the toes or ankles should avoid cold foot baths.
  • Elderly people and young children may be exhausted by too much heat and should avoid long full-body hot treatments such as immersion baths and saunas.
  • If you are pregnant or have heart disease, consult a doctor before taking a sauna.

Common techniques

A number of techniques are available under the general heading of hydrotherapy. These include: baths and showers, neutral baths, sitz baths, contrast sitz baths, foot baths, cold mitten friction rub, steam inhalation, hot compresses, cold compresses, alternating hot and cold compresses, heating compresses, body wrap, wet sheet pack, and salt glow.

Cold rubbings

Soak a linen cloth in cold water, wring out and briskly rub the upper and lower trunk, or the entire body. Go to bed until warm and dry. Indications: For invigoration, to tone up the body, to promote blood flow, for use in problems of circulation, or infections of the respiratory system.


Gentle douches can be carried out with a watering can or hose. The water should not splash, but gently envelop the skin. The water stream should always be directed from the periphery toward the heart. After douching, stroke off excess water, dress, and exercise. There are various types of douche:

  • Knee douche. The water stream is directed from the right small toe, along the outside of the lower leg to the hollow of the knee, then back along the inside and over the sole of the foot. The process is then repeated for the left leg. Useful for headaches and migraines, low blood pressure, sleeplessness, contusions, and varicose veins. This treatment influences the digestive and reproductive organs and can help ward off vascular damage. Do not use for urinary tract infections,   irritable bladder, sciatica, or during menstruation.
  • Thigh douche. The procedure is as for a knee douche, but includes the upper thigh. It can stimulate blood flow and help improve poor circulation. Useful for the treatment of varicose veins, muscular rheumatism, crural paralysis, coxarthritis. Do not use for urinary tract infection, irritable bladder, sciatica, or during menstruation.
  • Lower trunk douche. The procedure is as for the thigh douche, but including the lower trunk. Useful for diabetes mellitus, meteorism, enlargement of the liver, enlargement of the gallbladder, stone formation. Do not use for urinary tract infections,  irritable bladder, sciatica, or during menstruation.
  • Arm douche. Direct the water stream from the outside of the right hand to the shoulder, then back on the inside of the arm. Repeat the process for the left arm. Useful for cold hands, nervous disorders, neuralgia and paralysis, rheumatism of the arms, heart problems, vertigo, headaches, catarrh in the nose and throat.
  • Chest douche. Douche the arms first. Useful for chronic bronchitis and bronchial asthma, angina pectoris. Caution: Moderate the temperature if there is risk of angiospasm.
  • Upper trunk douche. This involves the upper torso and arms. It can be used to improve blood flow to the lungs, heart, and pleura. Useful for the treatment of bronchitis, bronchial asthma, disease of the larynx and vocal cords, headaches, nervous excitability, varicose veins of the legs, for toning-up, and for stimulating cardiac and respiratory activity. Caution: Do not use if there is blood stasis in the pulmonary circulation.
  • Back douche. Useful for the treatment of weakened back muscles, back pain, spinal disease, multiple sclerosis, bronchial asthma, nearly all diseases of the lung. Warning: Do not use in debilitated patients or those with neurasthenia.
  • Neck douche. Useful for headaches, migraines, tenseness in the shoulder and neck, hypersensitivity to changes in the weather, mild depression, tinnitus, vertigo, arthrosis of the hand and finger joints. Warning: Not to be used in persons with high blood pressure, enlargement of the thyroid, or raised intraocular pressure.
  • Face douche. Proceed from the right temple downward to the chin, upward to the left temple, from right to left over the forehead, and repeatedly from the forehead to the chin, then in circles over the face. This is useful for relieving headaches and migraines, trigeminal neuralgia, toothaches, for relaxing tired eyes. Caution: Keep the eyes closed.

Sauna and Steam Baths

Saunas and steam baths are similar in effect; the decision to take one rather than the other will be guided by personal preference. In a sauna the heat acts more quickly to eliminate toxins through the skin, though some consider the moist air of a steam bath to have a more satisfying effect on the respiratory system. Saunas are deeply relaxing and are a great way to melt away stress.

A sauna is an eliminative procedure; it stimulates blood flow, increases the heart rate, has an immune-modulating effect, promotes hormone production, encourages mucosal secretions in the respiratory system, opens the airways, reduces resistance to respiration, regulates the vegetative system, relaxes, and can improve mental outlook. Children can start to take saunas at two or three years of age.

Indications: For "toning-up," for health promotion, as a way of treating pain caused by pulled back muscles, chronic rheumatoid arthritis, bronchial asthma, unstable hypertension (stages I and 11), severely disturbed peripheral blood circulation.

Warnings: Saunas should not be taken by persons with acute rheumatoid arthritis, acute infection, active tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, acute mental disorder, inflammation of an inner organ or blood vessels, significant vascular changes in the brain or heart, circulatory problems or acute cancer.

Do not spend more than 15 to 20 minutes at a time in a sauna. Wipe your face frequently with a cold cloth to avoid overheating.

Full and partial immersion baths

Various substances can be added to warm and rising temperature baths. See herbal baths below. The following are the different kinds of bath used:

Rising temperature hip bath. This is taken in a tub filled with a hand's breadth of tepid water. Hot water is then gradually added until the level reaches the navel. The final temperature should be 103-104'F. Following this procedure, the patient is wrapped warm and proceeds to bed. It should last 15-30 minutes, not more than three times per week.

Indications: incipient and abating common colds, back pain (sciatica).

Warning: to be used with caution by persons with heart or circulation problems, hemorrhoids, or varicose veins.

Cold foot bath. The feet are placed into a foot bath filled to calf depth with cold water. Stop when a cold stimulus is felt or when the water is no longer perceived as being particularly cold. Stroke off excess water, dress, and walk or run until dry. A special form of this treatment is "walking in water," which involves walking stork-like on a non-slip mat placed under the water.

Indications: Varicose veins, susceptibility to edemas, headaches, low blood pressure, circulatory problems, sleeplessness, proneness to the common cold, sweaty feet, or a contused ankle.

Warning: This type of treatment is best avoided by people who suffer from cold feet, very high blood pressure, an irritable bladder, urinary tract infection, diabetes, or vascular occlusion.

Rising temperature foot bath, warm foot bath. The feet are immersed in a foot bath filled with water at body temperature. Hot water is gradually added to give a final temperature of 103-104'F. In warm foot baths water of this temperature is added straight away. Keep warm afterwards. The procedure should last 10-15 minutes and can be done daily.

Indications: Cold feet, start of a common cold, for relaxation.

Warning: Best avoided by people with varicose veins, lymphostasis, or edema.

Cold arm bath. A basin is filled with cold water until it reaches a depth several inches above the immersed elbow. If the treatment becomes intolerable, stop and repeat as desired.

Indications: Headaches, sleeplessness.

Warning: Best avoided by people with heart or circulatory problems.

Rising temperature arm bath. In principle, this is the same as the rising temperature foot bath. It should be followed by a cold arm douche, then by half an hour's rest.

Indications: Bronchitis, asthma, incipient respiratory infection, circulatory problems, angina pectoris.

Sitz bath. This is generally taken in a hip bath as a cold, rising temperature, or warm sitz bath. Prior to a sitz bath, warm the feet, e.g. through a warm foot bath. Parts of the body not immersed in water should be covered.

Indications: Cold sitz bath for hemorrhoids or inflammation of the anus; warm or rising temperature sitz bath for difficulty in voiding the bladder, an irritable bladder, inflammation or infection of the prostate, preparation for pregnancy.

Warning: Do not use warm or rising temperature sitz baths for hemorrhoids.


A wrap is primarily used as a supportive measure for treating fever and local inflammation. The person receiving treatment should first adopt a relaxed position. Then a linen cloth is moistened with cold water (warm water for respiratory diseases), well wrung out, and then wrapped tightly around the appropriate part of the body, but not so tightly as to cause constriction. The moist linen cloth is in turn wrapped with a dry cotton or linen cloth. The patient is then usually wrapped in a blanket or another cloth, and should rest for 45-60 minutes or, if the intention is to induce sweating, for up to three hours.

If the wrap is not felt to be warm after a quarter of an hour, heat should be applied in the form of a hot water bottle or by giving warm tea. The wrap should be removed immediately if the person complains of feeling unwell.


  • Neck wrap: sore throat
  • Chest wrap: bronchitis, lung disease, neuralgia
  • Body wrap (between costal arch and pubic bone): inflammatory disease of the upper abdomen, gastric and duodenal ulcers, cramps, sleeplessness, fever
  • Trunk wrap (between pubic bone and armpits): high fever
  • Hip wrap (with gap between the legs): prostatitis, vaginitis, hemorrhoids, anal eczema, inflammation in the pelvic cavity
  • Calf wrap (between foot and knee): lymphostasis, edema, for withdrawing heat in fever and phlebitis; in varicose veins the effect can sometimes be amplified through the use of healing earth or loam poultices
  • Joint wraps: rheumatoid arthritis, arthrosis


Warm packs. A wrapping cloth is soaked in a hot infusion or decoction of herbs, then wrung out and applied to the patient's body. Alternatively, the wrap may receive a coating of hot mud mustard flour, or fango. As a further alternative, hayseed may be placed in a sack and steamed.

Indications: Painful chronic diseases such as arthrosis, renal disease, or cystitis, and for stimulating blood flow.

Warning: Always check that the temperature is tolerable before applying a wrap.

Cold packs. Cooled cataplasm is spread onto the wrapping cloth and placed on the part of the body. Crushed ice in a plastic bag may also be repeatedly applied for one minute, then removed for four.

Indications: Various inflammatory arthropathies, sprains and strains, pleurisy. Ice packs can also be used for headaches.

Warning: When using ice packs, place a thin cloth between the pack and the skin to prevent frostbite.

Herbal baths can be particularly soothing when you are experiencing a period of stress. There are several ways to prepare an herbal bath:

1. Simmer 1/2 cup of herbs in 1 quart of water in a covered pot for fifteen minutes. While the herbs are simmering, take a short shower to cleanse your body, then fill the tub with hot or warm water. Strain the liquid from the decoction into the bath water, and wrap the herbs in a washcloth. Soak in the tub for at least twenty minutes, using the "herbal washcloth" to rub over your body. -

2. Add 1/2 cup of herbs to running bath water, preferably hot. You might want to cover the drain with a thin mesh screen to prevent the herbs from clogging the pipes. Soak in the tub for twenty to thirty minutes.

3. Fill a thin cloth bag with 1/2 cup of herbs, either placing it in the bath water or tying it to the spigot so that the hot water runs through it as it fills the tub. Again, soak for twenty to thirty minutes.

Certain herbs are quite effective for creating soothing baths. Combine a handful each of valerian, lavender, linden, chamomile, hops, and burdock root, and add it to your bath according to one of the preceding methods. Soak for thirty minutes in the tub. Another soothing herbal bath calls for a handful each of hops, linden, valerian, chamomile, yarrow, and passionflower. Prepare this bath according to one of the preceding methods, or simmer the herbs in a quart of water, then drink 1/2cup of the liquid (with lemon and honey added, if you wish) and pour the rest in the tub. While soaking in an herbal bath, you can read, meditate, listen to peaceful music, or just sit quietly, concentrating on relaxing yourself.

Importance of Drinking Sufficient Water

It is very important that we drink sufficient amount of water in a day to make up for the water lost. The benefits of drinking water is widely recognized. Drinking pure, fresh water is essential to our health and well-being.

Our need for water increases as we grow older. As we age, our skin and mucus membranes become thinner and lose more water, and our kidneys function less efficiently. So our need for water increases. You may not feel thirsty. But you should get into the habit of drinking water, nevertheless.

Please refer to our section on water for more information and to learn how much water you need to consume.

Follow these steps for an Effective Hydrotherapy:

  • For overall tension reduction, use a neutral bath (temperature between 92 to 94 degree F) that is close to the skin temperature.
  • Use water temperature between 102 to 106 degree F for loosening tight, tense muscles and reducing the pain of stress-related conditions such as backache. (Using temperatures higher than 106 degrees is not recommended as it can raise your body temperature very fast, inducing an artificial fever.)
  • Take a cold shower after you step out of the bath. This brings and immediate rush of blood through your system, as well as a rush of energy. (Try alternating cold and hot shower to get a similar effect. 3 minutes of hot water followed by 30 seconds of cold water and the 3 minutes of hot water, etc.)
  • Stay in the bath no more than 15 to 20 minutes. If you have high blood pressure or cardiovascular problems, don't stay long enough to raise your body temperature.
  • Evening is the best time to soak in water. A study conducted in England found that people who took a soaking bath before going to bed slept more readily and deeply.

Hydrotherapy for Healing Diseases/Conditions

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