All you need to know about hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy, more popularly called water therapy has been around since ages. Ancient civilisations including Greek, Roman, Japanese and Chinese have used hydrotherapy to treat a number of ailments.

Romans made public baths for their citizens; these are seen even today while the Japanese believed that in hot springs lay the cure for certain illnesses. Alternative names of hydrotherapy are hydropathy and baleneotherapy.

Science behind hydrotherapy

Water is a great way to apply heat or cold to the body. Cold compresses are useful in bringing down the swelling and inflammation after a sudden or sports injury while hot water revives tired muscles and opens sweat pores leading to detoxification.

In some ailments, alternating hot and cold water has a beneficial effect.

Today, spas are nothing but a form of hydrotherapy, where mud baths, body wraps, aromatherapy (bathing in water to which essential oils are added), Jacuzzis, steam baths and Turkish baths are present.

Hydrotherapy can be internal or external.

Examples of internal hydrotherapy are colon irrigation, enemas, vaginal douching and nasal irrigation done for chronic sinusitis. Steam baths can also be considered a type of internal hydrotherapy as they open up the pores to allow sweating and they act on the temperature receptors located in the skin and soothe the underlying muscles.

Examples of external hydrotherapy are compresses, using shower sprays or jet sprays and immersing part or the whole body in water which could be hot, cold or neutral (similar to body temperature).

Medical conditions that use hydrotherapy

  1. Chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and rheumatism; hydrotherapy helps in acute exacerbations when joint pain, inflammation and swelling are the complaints.
  2. Infections – upper respiratory tract infections as well as vaginal infections can be relieved using water therapy combined with other remedies.
  3. Burns – water cools the skin and speeds up the healing process. We have been taught to `pour water on burns’ as part of giving first aid to a victim.
  4. People with haemorrhoids, prostate problems and pelvic problems sit in a tub of warm to hot water. This is called Seitz bath and is recommended in these conditions. Seitz bath is advised after a vaginal delivery to help healing of the episiotomy wound and relieve the pain caused by overstretched muscles.
  5. Hydrobirths are practised worldwide today. Labouring in a large tub of hot water offers pain relief without resorting to other methods like epidural anesthesia and water naturally opens up the vaginal passage and acts as a lubricant allowing smoother delivery of the baby.
  6. People prone to kidney stones and constipation are advised to drink a lot of water as kidney stones occur due to crystal formation when water content in the body is less while water adds bulk and makes the stools softer avoiding unnecessary straining while passing motions. Water also helps flush out small stones which are passed out in the urine.
  7. Safe drinking water is very important to correct dehydration. Moderate to severe dehydration requires water to be replenished in the form of intravenous fluids while mild dehydration can be corrected using ORS or oral rehydration solution which is a water based solution.
  8. Aches and pains are treated using hot water bags, initially cold compresses for the first few hours followed by hot compresses.
  9. To bring down fever, tepid water compresses are placed on the forehead. Children can be sponged all over the body with tepid water to get the temperature down.
  10. A humidifier uses water vapour to treat sinus attacks, sore throats and colds, it is also used in beauty treatments like facials offered in salons.
  11. Hydrotherapy is used by physiotherapists to exercise painful limbs and joints as exercise done in water is good to build muscle strength; this is because moving water gives natural resistance to the body making you workout harder. Cryotherapy or immersion of cold water  can be used to rehabilitate persons after sports injuries.
  12. Hydrotherapy can be of value in adjuvant treatment of depression, anxiety and severe stress. It boosts the immune system and alleviates fatigue.
  13. Ice packs or cold compresses are used to treat headaches, muscle sprains in dental clinics, for e.g. after a tooth extraction to minimise inflammation and swelling.
  14. It is said to improve BMR (metabolic rate) and stimulates digestion.

Risks and complications of hydrotherapy

  1. Do not try hydrotherapy for your ailment without consulting a doctor as you may do more harm than good if the technique is incorrect.
  2. Hydrotherapy is beneficial as an adjuvant treatment, it should not replace the treatment recommended by your medical practitioner.
  3. Steam baths and saunas should not be tried with people having heart conditions unless cleared by the doctor.
  4. Some people claim that colonic irrigation helps to cure colon cancer; this claim is false.
  5. People with circulatory disorders like Raynaud’s syndrome or frostbite should not be given ice packs or cryotherapy as it will worsen such conditions.
  6. People using hot tubs at clubs or public areas may be susceptible to bacterial infections. Mud baths predispose to fungal infections.
  7. Drinking large quantities of water can cause electrolyte imbalance and water intoxication which could be fatal.
  8. Children and the elderly should not be given ice cold water application as it can rapidly bring down the body temperature and may have serious consequences.

Written by Dr Nisreen Nakhoda, General Physician

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