Hydrotherapy is an umbrella term for different therapeutic techniques that use water to improve your health. Hydrotherapy may help to improve inflammation, pain, and other chronic symptoms. It may be a great low-impact physical activity and rehabilitation strategy. There are so many positive effects of hydrotherapy, most people can benefit from it.

In today’s article, I want to talk about hydrotherapy. I will go over the benefits of hydrotherapy. You will learn about different hydrotherapy techniques and types. Let’s get into it.

What Is Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy may also be referred to as aquatic therapy or water therapy. It is a form of therapy that uses water in any form for therapeutic purposes. Hydrotherapy may be used for arthritis, fibromyalgia, other chronic conditions, burns, and other temporary skin conditions. 

Hydrotherapy may use hot or cold water with different flow and pressure depending on the condition and the specific treatment. The goal of the therapy is to address both your physical and mental symptoms. 

You may practice some forms of hydrotherapy in the comfort of your own home. For example, sitting in a warm bath is a form of hydrotherapy when used for therapeutic purposes. Other forms of hydrotherapy require certain equipment, location, or practitioner. For example, physiotherapy tanks may be a form of hydrotherapy that requires a location with the necessary equipment. Hot tubs, sauna, cold sauna, whirlpools, swimming pools, baths, and showers are some other examples of different equipment and locations used for hydrotherapy. How these equipment or locations are used for hydrotherapy depends on the type of therapy and your specific health condition.

Types of Hydrotherapy

There are different types of hydrotherapy. Your doctor, physical therapist, or another healthcare practitioner may recommend one or several types of hydrotherapy, depending on your condition and health goals. Some common types of hydrotherapy include:

  • Aquatic exercise: Aquatic exercise is a low-impact form of exercise that you can practice in a pool, usually with the help of a therapist or trainer. It can help to raise your heart rate and work your muscles without putting pressure and stress on your joints or causing pain. According to a 2014 review published in the North American Journal of Medicine, aquatic exercise may be beneficial for those with arthritis, joint pain, fibromyalgia, and older individuals (1).
  • Warm baths: Warm baths are also a form of hydrotherapy. They may help to relax your muscles and relieve pain. 
  • Balneotherapy: Balneotherapy is a form of warm bath. It’s a bath with minerals, salts, or other ingredients to ease pain and receive therapeutic benefits.
  • Ice baths: Ice baths are baths with very cold water, usually with ice. They are often used by athletes to reduce muscle soreness and pain. You may also take an ice bath in a very cold lake or open water.
  • Sitz bath: Sitz bath is often recommended for hemorrhoids and cramps. It requires you to sit in shallow warm or cold bath water to relieve symptoms.
  • Saunas: Saunas, including wet, dry, and infrared sauna, can support detoxification, relaxation, and pain relief. There are also cool and refrigerated saunas or cryotherapy for pain and inflammation relief.
  • Steam bath: A steam bath is a steam-filled room commonly used for relaxation and detoxification.
  • Spa therapy: Spa therapy may combine some form of hydrotherapy with massage, physical therapy, exercise, or another form of therapeutic modality.
  • Wraps and compresses: Hot, warm, and cold compresses and wraps may help to relieve pain and inflammation from injuries, arthritis, surgeries, and other issues.
  • Water circuit therapy: Water circuit therapy alternates between cold and warm water. It may involve combining different forms of hydrotherapy. For example, you may take a cold shower or cold plunge after a warm sauna or warm bath. 
  • Contrast hydrotherapy: Contrast hydrotherapy is similar to water circuit therapy. It involves repeatedly putting one limb into hot and cold water to reduce inflammation, stiffness, pain, or edema.
  • Immersion therapies: Immersion therapies include hydrotherapies that require you to immerse yourself in water for symptom relief. Some forms of immersion therapy include cold plunges, warm baths, cool baths, whirlpool baths, hot tubs, and jet massages.

Benefits of Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy has many health benefits. Let’s take a look at them.

Reducing Pain

A 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the International Journal of General Medicine has found that balneotherapy and spa therapy may help to reduce pain in people with chronic diseases that affect connective tissues and the musculoskeletal system (2). It may be great for back pain, hip pain, knee pain, other joint pain, and chronic pain. Using warm water in hydrotherapy may help to relax your muscles, improve blood flow, calm pain signals, and reduce pains in affected areas. Researchers found that both forms of hydrotherapy may improve function and fitness.

Decreasing Arthritis Symptoms

If you have joint pain or arthritis, you may particularly benefit from hydrotherapy. According to a 2018 randomized controlled trial published in Clinical Rehabilitation, practicing aquatic exercise for 8 weeks may help to improve knee pain and function in osteoarthritis (3). According to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases, moderate-intensity aquatic exercise may help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) (4). Researchers found that hydrotherapy may work well in a combination of drug treatments for RA.

Offering Low Impact Physical Exercise

Aquatic exercise and other active forms of hydrotherapy can have a very low impact with little stress on the joints. This may be particularly beneficial if you have been recovering from an injury, have chronic joint problems, have a disability, or are older. According to a 2019 randomized controlled trial published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, aquatic exercise may help to increase postural mobility, flexibility, strength, and balance in older individuals (5). Sticking to a lower-impact aquatic workout plan may improve strength, function, and pain.

Improving Mental Health and Mood

Swimming, water-based exercise, and hydrotherapy may help to improve your mood and mental health. A 1992 study published in Perceptual and Motor Skills has found that swimming has similar mood-lifting benefits to yoga (6). This may be particularly helpful if you are dealing with mental health issues combined with chronic pain. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine has found that aquatic exercise may help to reduce depression and anxiety in women with fibromyalgia while reducing pain and improving function (7). 

Improved Relaxation and Better Sleep

Hydrotherapy may also improve physical and mental relaxation. It may relax your muscles and relieve tension, but it may also calm your mind and reduce stress. It may also help to improve your sleep quality. A 2019 review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has found that the thermal effects of water immersion in hydrotherapy may help to support relaxation and sleep (8). According to a 2007 review in Current Opinions in Rheumatology, aquatic exercise may help to improve the mood and sleep of those with fibromyalgia (9).

Improved Workout Recovery

Hydrotherapy may also improve recovery from your workouts. Aquatic exercise can be a great way to cross-train athletes. Alternating between warm or hot water and cold water, using a hot sauna or cryotherapy, wraps, and compresses may help to reduce muscle soreness and improve recovery from workouts. According to a 2015 study published in Springerplus, sauna use may help recovery from strength and endurance workouts (10). According to a 2019 randomized controlled trial published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, taking cold showers may also aid recovery (11).

Benefit Pregnant Individuals

Hydrotherapy may also be beneficial during pregnancy. It may promote relaxation and reduce aches and pains associated with pregnancy. According to a 1999 study published in the Journal of Perinatal Medicine, aquatic exercise may be beneficial during pregnancy (12). According to a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, birth-related hydrotherapy during water birth may help to lower pain and promote relaxation (13). 

Supports Rehabilitation

Hydrotherapy may be a great rehabilitation strategy if you have an injury or chronic pain. It may also be a great form of rehabilitation when it comes to developmental and physical disabilities and aging-related challenges. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research has found that swimming and aquatic exercise may be beneficial for children with developmental disabilities and their families (14). It may accommodate and improve skills and abilities and may also improve family relationships. According to a 2007 randomized controlled trial published in Quality Life Research, aquatic exercise may improve the quality of life of frail elderly (15).

Improves Bone Density

Hydrotherapy may also be beneficial if you are post-menopausal, have low bone density, or want to reduce your risk of osteoporosis. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, aquatic exercise may help to improve the bone mineral density of post-menopausal individuals (16).

Cold Water vs Warm Water

Water temperature matters. Cold water and warm water both have their specific benefits and uses.

The benefits of cold water may include:

  • Reducing pain
  • Decreasing inflammation
  • Improving muscle soreness and pain
  • Lowering body temperature
  • Improving immune health

The benefits of warm water may include:

  • Decreasing pain
  • Relaxing the muscles
  • Promoting blood flow
  • Relieving constipation
  • Flushing out toxins

Risks of Hydrotherapy

Though hydrotherapy is generally safe and risk-free, it’s not recommended in certain cases.

Inform your physiotherapist, healthcare provider, or other therapist involved with your treatment if you have:

  • A wound or skin infection
  • A raised temperature
  • A virus or upset stomach
  • Incontinence
  • Chlorine allergy
  • Breathing difficulties, angina, or heart problems
  • A kidney condition and you are undergoing dialysis
  • Any other health issues that are currently not well-controlled, such as asthma, epilepsy, high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, or diabetes

Having these conditions may not necessarily mean you can’t benefit from hydrotherapy. It will allow your therapist to make necessary special arrangements as needed. In some cases, for example, if you have a stomach bug, you may just need to skip a session.

What to Expect from Hydrotherapy

What you can expect from hydrotherapy very much depends on the type of hydrotherapy and your condition. For example, with aquatic exercise, your sessions will likely last for around 30 minutes, and you may be recommended a round of five or six sessions at first. It may or may not be held in a group. If it’s in a group, others may be dealing with similar conditions as you. Other forms of hydrotherapy may be held during individual sessions or may be done at home. 

If your hydrotherapy session is held outside of your home, such as at a hospital, physical therapy center, or another health facility, you will likely need to bring a swimming costume, towel, and any medications you may need for your condition at the time. If you can’t swim, don’t worry. The water used for aquatic exercise and other forms of hydrotherapy requiring you to be in the water is shallow enough. If you have any concerns, don’t be afraid to ask your therapist. They will be happy to answer your questions and offer extra support if needed.

How to Do It

Hydrotherapy has so many forms and benefits, chances are you can benefit from some type of hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy may help to relieve pain and inflammation, improve range of motion and function, help with stress, anxiety, or depression, or offer some other benefits. Some forms of hydrotherapy are done in groups, so you may even find some social benefits from attending. If you don’t have excess to a hydrotherapy pool, sauna, or another hydrotherapy center, you can try a warm bath, sitz bath, or cool shower at home, depending on your needs. You have nothing to lose, but may have some fantastic benefits to gain.

Next Steps

If you are looking for personalized tips, dietary and lifestyle recommendations, and supplementation support to improve your health, wellness, and mental well-being, I welcome you to start a personalized functional medicine consultation with me. You may book your consultation here. 

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