Hydrotherapy - Using Simple Techniques for Healing with Water
Updated: May 7
In naturopathic medical school I learned about a lot of different treatment strategies including botanical medicine, nutritional therapy, homeopathy, energy medicine and physical medicine. Physical medicine can encompass many modalities and includes therapies that support the whole body including the muscles, joints, spine, extremities and organs. These techniques include massage, reiki, craniosacral therapy, spinal adjustments, hydrotherapy, and exercise.
Hydrotherapy was one of my favorite physical medicine classes in my first year of school because it was something patients could do at home and it was interesting to learn the hands-on techniques. Essentially, hydrotherapy uses water in various applications and temperatures to promote healing. It goes as far back as ancient times when the Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese civilizations used it as medicine. In the 19th century this practice was known as "water cure" and naturopathic medicine grew out of it with the help of Benedict Lust and Henry Lindlahr who added other modalities like dietary therapy. Lindlahr wrote a book called Nature Cure, that outlines the philosophy and practice of naturopathic medicine that we still learn about in school to this day.
Hydrotherapy may sound simple, but there are many ways you can apply water to the body to promote healing, detoxification, stress reduction, immune support, improved circulation and lymphatic flow.
Benefits of Hydrotherapy
Immune support - In my practice I see patients with autoimmune hypothyroidism, which can be associated with a disease called Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). Hydrotherapy can be a great way to stimulate and support the immune system in viral and bacterial infections by improving lymphatic flow and our immune cells. You can use hydrotherapy techniques during the fall and winter to keep yourself healthy against colds/flu or even if you do end up getting sick.
Improved circulation - For those of you that are "cold all the time" this can be a great way to improve circulation so your body keeps you warm. Alternating between hot and cold applications dilates and constricts blood vessels to improve blood flow, bring oxygen rich blood to an area and carry away waste products. Cold applications or showers can feel invigorating and stimulate your body to do the work of heating you up. Over time I've found that contrast showers can be an effective way to raise my resting temperature so I don't need to bundle up as much as I used to during the colder months.
Techniques You Can Do At Home
Wet sock treatment - This is a very easy hydrotherapy treatment for reducing congestion and helping you sleep. You can use this for sore throats, ear infections, colds, coughs, sinus infections or headaches. The best time to do this is at night before going to bed because you need to stay warm while the treatment is working. Because this treatment relies on good circulation, use caution if you have circulatory issues like Raynaud's, diabetes or arterial insufficiency.
Take a pair of thin, cotton socks and soak them in cold water. Wring them out and set aside. You may want to put them in the freezer during step #2.
Soak your feet in hot water for 5-10 minutes until they're warm. Dry off your feet and legs. This is important because you want to get your feet warmed before you put the cold socks on.
Put the cotton socks on and then put a pair of dry, thick, wool socks over the cotton socks.
Bundle up and go to bed. Wear the socks all night while you sleep. By the morning the socks should be dry and warm. This treatment can have a sedating effect and you may find you sleep well and wake feeling rested!
Immune and detox bath - Baths are beneficial for raising the body temperature, stimulating the immune system, relieving aches and pain, and detoxifying through sweating. You can do this if you're coming down with a cold or flu or have aching muscles or joints due to arthritis or overexertion. The water should be around 100F and treatment lasts for about 15-20 minutes. Water temperature and duration should be tolerable so be careful to not push yourself past what you can stand. If you're doing the bath for immune support follow it up with a hot cup of tea, cozy pj's, get bundled up in bed and get a good night's sleep. You can also follow a hot bath with a short cool shower.
Hot water can lower blood pressure so be careful when you get out of the tub as you may be dizzy. Eat a snack before doing a treatment to keep your blood sugar steady. Use a cold washcloth on your face and head if you develop a headache.
Neutral bath - This bath is best done before bed because it can be sedating and relaxing. It's beneficial if you have insomnia, anxiety, or chronic pain. The temperature of the water should be close to your own skin temperature so it's neither cooling or stimulates sweating. Use your own preference as to the temperature you use and if you stay in the bath longer than 20 minutes you may need to warm it up.
Neutral baths can be more prolonged than hot baths and you can stay in one for as little as 15 minutes or up to 4 hours. Your skin surface temperature may decrease so take care to not become chilled and to keep yourself warm after you get out. Kidney function and urine output can be increased with a neutral bath so use caution if you have kidney disease or other kidney issues. However, if you don't suffer from kidney issues this can be a good way to promote detoxification.
Contrast hydrotherapy - This can be great for reducing swelling and pain in an extremity or joint. You can use a bowl, small tubs or apply the water with washcloths. Start with two containers and fill one with hot water and one with cold water. Submerge the affected area in the hot water for 3 minutes, then switch to the cold water for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Repeat this 3-5 times and always end with cold.
Cautions With Hydrotherapy
When working with hot or cold water make sure you or someone else tests the water temperature before applying or submerging your body in it. If you have diabetes, circulation or nerve issues that prevent you from being able to accurately determine the temperature of the water have someone else test it for you, use a body part you know is not affected or use a thermometer to judge.
Possible side effects include dizziness, headache, palpitations, aches, pains, insomnia, and chilliness. Usually these can be due to dehydration, detoxification, low blood sugar or increased circulation and resolve with rest, food and water.
Hydrotherapy is contraindicated if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes.
The benefits of hydrotherapy include immune support, lymphatic support and improved circulation. Types of hydrotherapy you can do at home include wet sock treatments for cold/flu, upper respiratory infection and headache, a hot bath for immune support and detoxification, neutral baths for relaxation and detoxification, and contrast hydrotherapy for swelling and pain. Hydrotherapy is contraindicated if you are pregnant, have hypertension, heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
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Pizzorno, Joseph E., and Michael T. Murray. Textbook of Natural Medicine. Elsevier/Churchill Livingstone, 2013.
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