What is hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy is a type of physical therapy which utilises water to create a therapeutic environment. It is used all around the world and is considered a valuable part of mainstream healthcare (e.g. the UK’s National Health Service endorses and provides hydrotherapy for certain conditions). It can range from the use of ice packs to saunas, to – most commonly – special activities and exercises carried out in warm water. The difference between hydrotherapy and swimming or aqua aerobics is that hydrotherapy exercises are tailored by physiotherapists, and the water is much warmer than in a pool (as high as 37 degrees, like bath water). Hydrotherapy is also different to spa therapy because it does not need to take place in natural spa water.
Hydrotherapy can help in the management of a variety of health complaints including rheumatism, arthritis, acne, circulation problems, the cold virus, insomnia, stress, nerve problems, muscular pain, sciatica, joint aches, depression, headaches, and cramps.
Where did it originate?
Water has long been recognised as a therapeutic element. The Romans were famous for their bathhouses, while the sweat lodge has roots in Native American culture, and thousands of people still travel to Iceland every year to bathe in their natural, hot springs.
How does it work?
Water is a highly effective setting for physical therapy because it has a combination of healing attributes.
- Water has a naturally relaxing impact on people
- Water-based activities provide excellent muscular workouts because of the water’s resistance
- The warmth of the water acts as a pain reliever on sore joints, aching backs and cramping stomachs
- Activity in water puts less strain on joints as the body’s weight is supported
- Being in the water can increase blood flow, and therefore oxygen transmission to important cells in organs and skin
- Water is a flexible vessel, and changing the temperature (and even making additions of certain ingredients or minerals) can alter outcomes significantly
There is a kind of domino effect created in hydrotherapy, with each stage producing more benefits. Moving in warm water increases blood flow to muscles, organs and the surface of the skin. In turn, good circulation improves lymph drainage, which helps channel toxins out of the body. This creates a stronger immune system, which helps prevent and mitigate viruses and bacterial infections. The benefits of hydrotherapy have a cumulative effect, with greater health benefits in longer courses of treatment.
Different types of hydrotherapy
Hydrotherapy comes in all manner of types. The wonderful thing about water is its flexibility with temperature and form: cold water, warm water, steam and ice all carry different health benefits and can treat different ailments. For example, poultices, sometimes known as fomentation, are warm, wet compresses used to help with arthritis, colds and flu. Cold compresses (or even ice packs) are used for bruises, sprains, bumps, headaches, or even dental treatment.
The following list describes some commonly used forms of hydrotherapy.
Bath: Soaking in a warm to hot bath (just above body temperature, which is 37 degrees Celsius or 99 degrees Fahrenheit) can relax aching muscles, relieve tension, period pains, bad backs and arthritis.
Sitz bath: this is a shallow bath, filled with only a few inches of water, in which a person sits to soak their lower abdomen and pelvis area, while their feet, arms, legs and torso are all out of the water. A warm sits bath is particularly helpful for pelvic problems, haemorrhoids, period pain, prostate pain and yeast infections (adding salt cleanses the area while vinegar can adjust the ph balance), while cold ones can be effective in treating constipation, inflammation and incontinence.
Whirlpool bath: a warm, pressurised bath which is extremely relaxing for muscles, and can be helpful in fighting infections and sores
Steam room: hot steam fills a room while people sit inside and inhale. The steam eases congestion in the lungs and causes perspiration, which can remove impurities and counter water retention.
Sauna: a sauna works in a very similar way to a steam room, except there is no humidity and the dry heat causes perspiration.
Compress: a flannel, bandage or towel which is soaked in water and applied to the affected area. Hot compresses soothe muscular pain and encourage blood flow. Cold compresses can work on headaches, fevers and swellings.
Mineral soak: seawater contains healing minerals such as iodine, and can be used in baths and wraps to treat skin problems, rheumatism, menopausal side effects and insomnia.
Jet: specific parts of the body can be targeted with short bursts from high powered jets, to improve circulation, muscle tone and organ function.
Colonic hydrotherapy: water flows into the rectum to flush out waste material. Many people talk anecdotally about the benefits of this treatment, though there is no scientific evidence in favour of it.
Hydrotherapy for dogs: Swimming is an excellent exercise for dogs and helps them to regain strength and stamina that has been lost post-operatively or due to the ageing process, illness or injury.
How effective is hydrotherapy?
When a number of patients with chronic rheumatoid arthritis were assigned one of four treatment options, those receiving hydrotherapy showed dramatically larger improvements than the other three groups. It has also proven highly effective in tests treating patients with osteoarthritis.
Who can use it?
Hydrotherapy is a wide-reaching solution suitable for most types of people. Although extreme temperatures should never be used with children or the elderly (never put a child in a cold or hot bath), and people with heart problems should not use saunas almost everyone else can benefit from hydrotherapy: people with MS, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, cerebral palsy, autism or people rehabilitating after accidents, strokes, surgery or sports accidents can all enjoy the pleasure and strengthening effects of hydrotherapy.
Some painful and chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia are little understood and therefore have limited treatment options, but patients have found relief through hydrotherapy.
What are the side effects of hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy is generally a very safe form of treatment, but there are certain things to be careful with when undertaking this form of physiotherapy.
As with any water-based activity, caution should be exercised to remain safe from drowning. Almost all hydrotherapy is carried out in pools more shallow than the height of the person using it.
Patients should drink sufficient amounts of water to avoid becoming dehydrated.
The buoyancy of the water can make some activity seem easier, while it is actually working muscles very hard. Patients should get used to how their body feels after a session in order to gauge appropriate levels of activity (i.e. not “overdoing” it).
The warmth of the water may make a person feel dizzy.
If the hydrotherapy is taking place in a chlorinated pool, the patient should shower immediately after to avoid irritation to their skin.
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Hall, J., Skevington, S., Maddison, P., Chapman, K. (1996) ‘A randomized and controlled trial of hydrotherapy in rheumatoid arthritis’, in Arthritis & Rheumatology, Volume 9, Issue 3, June 1996, Pages 206–215, available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/1529-0131(199606)9:3%3C206::AID-ANR1790090309%3E3.0.CO;2-J/abstract
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