What is Hydrotherapy?

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Hydrotherapy is the use of water, both internally and externally and at varying temperatures, to maintain or restore health. Also known as water therapy, treatments include saunas, steam baths, foot baths, sitz baths, cold and hot water compresses, bathing in hot mineral springs, or doing water exercises in a pool..

What is the History of Hydrotherapy?

From Roman baths to hot mineral springs, cultures around the world have used water for centuries to treat a variety of health concerns.

Father Sebastian Kneipp, a 19th-century Bavarian monk, is said to be the father of modern hydrotherapy. Kneipp's use of alternating hot and cold water (called contrast therapy) is still used today. Hydrotherapy is popular in Europe and Asia, where people "take the waters" at hot mineral springs. 

What are the Principles of Hydrotherapy?

According to proponents, cold water is used because it is invigorating and causes superficial blood vessels to constrict, shunting the blood away from the surface to internal organs. Hot water causes superficial blood vessels to dilate, activating sweat glands, and removing waste from body tissues.

Alternating hot and cold water is done to improve elimination, decreases inflammation, and stimulates circulation and lymphatic drainage.

What are Some Common Hydrotherapy Treatments?

Hydrotherapy treatments are often given at health spas or recommended as home self-care treatments.

These are some types of hydrotherapy:

Watsu - An aquatic massage where the therapist uses massage techniques while you are floating comfortably in a warm water pool.

Sitz bath - A sitz bath involves two adjacent tubs of water, one warm and one cool. You sit in one tub with your feet in the other tub, and then alternate.

Sitz baths are recommended for hemorrhoids, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and menstruation problems.

Warm water baths - Soak in warm water for up to 30 minutes, depending on the condition. Epsom salts, mineral mud, aromatherapy oils, ginger, moor mud, and dead sea salts may be added.

Steam bath or Turkish bath - Steam rooms are filled with warm, humid aid. The steam is said to help the body release impurities. 

Sauna - The dry, warm air promotes sweating.

Compresses - Towels are soaked in warm and/or cool water and then placed on a particular area on the body. Cool compresses reduce inflammation and swelling, while warm compresses promote blood flow and ease stiff, sore muscles.

Wraps - While lying down, cold wet flannel sheets are used to wrap the body. The person is then covered with dry towels and then blankets. The body warms up in response and dries to wet sheets. It's used for colds, skin disorders, and muscle pain.

Contrast shower - At the end of a shower, turn the temperature down to as cool as you can comfortably tolerate (it shouldn't be icy cold). Turn the water off after 30 seconds (some people alternate between warm and cool water for up to three cycles, always ending with cool water.

Warming socks - Take a pair of wet cotton socks, wet them thoroughly, wring them out and put them on your feet. Then put a dry pair of wool socks over them and go to bed. Remove them in the morning. The cold, wet socks are said to improve circulation in the body and help ease head congestion.

Hot fomentation - For treatment of acute conditions such as chest colds and coughs. It seems to relieve symptoms but also decrease the length of the illness.

Hydrotherapy pool exercises - Exercising in a warm-water pool. The warm water allows you to exercise without fighting gravity and offers gentle resistance.

It's considered helpful for back pain, arthritis, and other musculoskeletal conditions. Unlike water aerobics, hydrotherapy exercises tend to be slow and controlled. Often done under the guidance of a physiotherapist.


Hydrotherapy may not be appropriate in certain circumstances.

  • Cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure - Increased blood flow may may put additional stress on the heart.
  • Fever
  • Inflammation - Warming may not be recommended for acute injuries.
  • Kidney disease
  • Cancer
  • Pregnancy
  • Decreased sensitivity to hot/cold

It's a good idea to check with your health care provider before using hydrotherapy.

Keep in mind that hydrotherapy shouldn't be used as a substitute for standard care in the treatment of any health condition.

The Takeaway

Many of us already use hydrotherapy in our lives, whether you take a warm bath or shower to unwind or put an ice pack on a swollen or painful area. There are a wide variety of treatments available, with some being done at home or by a professional to complement your current treatment regimen.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.