Hydrotherapy: “…not all healing comes in the shape of a pill”
Hydrotherapy is the use of water as a treatment to improve medical conditions, prevent disease, or enhance a person’s health and well-being. It has been used for thousands of years in countries all across the world. Now, however, it is getting more attention for being an effective therapy for both preventing and treating illnesses. Research and studies backup the therapeutic benefits of hydrotherapy that many have related anecdotally.
Hydrotherapy includes saunas, steams, compresses, hydro massages, sitz baths, hot springs, herbal-infused water, use of exercise equipment in water, and others. Warm water is usually used, but not always. There are several cold-water therapy treatments. Sometimes hot and cold water alternate during the treatment, such as in some sitz baths. In other therapies, cold water comes at the end, such as with saunas done in Scandinavian countries.
Hydrotherapy for Heart Health
It turns out that a sauna is more useful than something to do to relax, or relief of sinus and cold symptoms. Studies done in Finland showed that hydrotherapy aids in the prevention of heart disease. Researchers found that when participants regularly used a sauna (4 times weekly) blood pressure was reduced and arteries were more flexible. One interesting finding was that heart rates increased the same as after moderate exercise.
A report on the scientific evidence behind hydrotherapy from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) backs up the heart benefits of hydrotherapy. Studies the authors refer to reveal that water at 32 °C (89.6 °F) lowered heart rate and blood pressure. Other related heart and blood pressure factors were also lowered, such as plasma renin activity. Cortisol, the hormone related to stress, was also lowered.
The NIH article also reported on studies done with people who had chronic heart disease and the effects of warm water bathing or going to a sauna. Contrary to what once was believed that saunas and the like were bad for people with heart disease, the study found that after 15 minutes of warm water bathing or low sauna heat heart function improved. It also found that toleration for exercise, such as walking, was also improved.
In both the Finnish and NIH report, studies showed that cholesterol levels were also changed with sauna therapy. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) were lowered while high-density cholesterol levels increased. High-density (HDL) cholesterol is believed to be beneficial for the heart whereas LDL is believed to be harmful to the heart.
Hydrotherapy Effect onConditions of the Central Nervous System
The NIH report also looked at the effects of hydrotherapy on the central nervous system. Some of the studies showed that water therapy had a positive effect for patients with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Cold shower therapy studies showed an analgesic effect. Cold shower therapy looks promising for the symptoms of chronic fatigue, depression, and other mental health conditions.
The American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation reported the results of a study showing that hydrotherapy could help people who have had a stroke. Participants using an underwater treadmill had better metabolic results than those using a regular treadmill. “‘The study proposes a different, very innovative approach’ to rehabilitation after a stroke, said Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein, director of geriatric education at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York.”
Hydrotherapy for Musculoskeletal System Diseases and Injuries
While the benefits of hot and cold compresses for muscular injuries and bruises is widely accepted, hydrotherapy is showing promise for improving other musculoskeletal health conditions including improving the quality of life for these patients.
Studies suggest sauna therapy and water exercise therapy improves fibromyalgia patients’ symptoms. Hydrotherapy helped with the management of pain, pressure points soreness, fatigue, stiffness, and psychological effects of the disease.
After hydrotherapy exercise of 30 minutes a week, people with rheumatoid arthritis stated they felt better. Clinical improvement was reported with rheumatoid arthritis patients who participated in an infrared sauna study. Results showed improvement for stiffness, pain, and fatigue.
Underwater bikes, trampolines, and other equipment are a part of hydrotherapy treatment for people with mobility injuries. The benefits are twofold: The warm water relaxes muscles, reduces pain, and reduces swelling. The equipment provides resistance, which strengthens muscles.
Hydrotherapy used in this way also decreases the effects of gravity on joints and muscles. The buoyancy of the water helps people with mobility issues from accidents learn to walk faster than with more traditional walking therapy methods.
Other Benefits of Hydrotherapy
Participants in the Finnish study also had lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease. Other studies suggest that hydrotherapy also helps with improving antioxidant levels while decreasing free radicals.
Various water therapies were helpful for women during labor and afterwards. Immersion baths studies showed improvement in pain during labor. Contraction length was also shown to be shorter with water immersion than with traditional birthing methods. Cold sitz baths reduced swelling and pain in the perinea from an episiotomy, although another study found alternating cold and warm water was the most effective treatment for perineum pain.
Hydrotherapy Powerful Influence on Health
Fraser Smith, MATD, ND the chief academic officer for the ND program/Assistant Dean of Naturopathic Medicine at the National University of Health Sciences’ College of Professionals Studies sums up how hydrotherapy plays an important role in the health of a person:
Many of these patients have medical conditions that definitely require some degree of medication. But not all healing comes in the shape of a pill. It can be surprising to some, that an agent as simple, easy to manage and inexpensive as water, along with heat and/or cold, can be a powerful influence on health. In naturopathic medicine, we believe that these are just the things that people need. When patients can use the best of all that medicine has to offer, good things can result. 
Hydrotherapy appears to be one of those best of all treatments that medicine has to offer. And as more scientific research is done showing the many positive aspects of hydrotherapy, the more people will come to incorporate as a part of their healthy regimen whether it is to improve, prevent, or assist in healing.
- Marcus, Mary Brophy, The water workout trend health experts are gushing over. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/water-workout-aquatic-treadmill-hydrotherapy-exercise-trend/
- Smith, Fraser, MATD, ND. Heat, Hydrotherapy and Heart Health. https://aanmc.org/featured-articles/heat-hydrotherapy-heart-health/
- Fraser Smith, MATD, ND. Heat, Hydrotherapy and Heart Health. Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges. https://aanmc.org/featured-articles/heat-hydrotherapy-heart-health/
- Norton, Amy. Sauna session may be as good as exercise for the heart. Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/health/sc-hlth-sauna-good-for-heart-0131-story.html
- Marcus, Mary Brophy. The water workout trend health experts are gushing over. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/water-workout-aquatic-treadmill-hydrotherapy-exercise-trend/
- Merz, Beverly. Sauna use linked to longer life, fewer heart problems. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sauna-use-linked-longer-life-fewer-fatal-heart-problems-201502257755
- Mooventhan, A. and Nivethitha. L. Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body. U. S. National Library of Medicine. Nation Institute of Health