What Is Hydrotherapy? Explanation and Uses

Using water to sooth pain and heal the body is an ancient art commonly known as a “spa treatment”, but also known as hydrotherapy, or hydropathy as it was first called in the 1800’s. 

Today we think of spa treatments as a trip to a place where we will be pampered in various ways, including massage, facials, etc. 

As much as we are in favour of that type of “spa”, the original meaning of “spa” is more along the lines of soaking in mineral water to absorb its healing properties, and is more closely aligned with the humble, centuries-old nursing practice to treat those in dire need who are in some state of crisis. 

Arthritis and various other rheumatic problems are often treated with a type of hydrotherapy, focusing on slow, deliberate movements in water that is a specific temperature (33–36ºC).  This type of hydrotherapy often takes place in a hospital or at a clinic of some sort.

Hydrotherapy, in the greater sense of it being an alternative medicinal practice that calls upon the spirit, is synonymous with the term “spa” in its original sense, but with the added connotation nowadays that it will most likely also involve underwater massage of some sort, usually via controlled pressurized jets like those found in hot tubs

That said, hydrotherapy certainly doesn’t need to involve a lot of pressure on the skin, or even any at all.  Burn victims can recieve shower treatments with far less pressure or immersion methods that involve no pressure at all, depending on the severity of their injuries. 

As well, those who have been injured in other ways can receive therapy from water treatments that involve the cleaning of their wounds via immersion or sometimes suction.  As hydrotherapy, or hydropathy, was being explored in the 19th century, it was a prevailing thought that water would fill all cracks and pours in a person’s skin and flush out all the poisons that may be held within.  As it was mainly cold water that was used at this time, this is partly where we get our notions today of the health benefits of a cold bath or shower.

Modern hydrotherapy uses both vasodilation and vasoconstriction to affect the flow of blood using subtle controlled fluctuations in water temperature, and this in turn stimulates the metabolic functions of the human body. Seasoned practitioners know exactly how to implement hydrotherapy in just the right ways to get our bodies to react in certain ways due to this controlled thermoregulation.

Broadly speaking, water itself has many physical attributes which can be applied to the human body to provide therapy, including pressure applied to our skin at different temperatures for different reasons, as mentioned.  Certain conditions can be treated in this way, and hydrotherapy can also have a positive effect on blood circulation. 

In addition, simply hearing the sound of running water provides a therapeutic effect, not to mention the moisture we feel emanating from hot steam, or certain smells that come from water touching our skin and being in contact with certain types of rock or plant life.  Some therapists, as part of an Indian, Japanese, or Chinese water therapy, will promote the ingestion of certain amounts of water to deal with certain ailments, by flushing out the system from with.  This is all considered hydrotherapy as well, in the broadest sense.

In terms of where spa hydrotherapy can be had, it again depends on your definition of what true hydrotherapy entails.  Some might say just visit a spa and recieve treatment, or you can buy yourself a hot tub or jacuzzi for your home.  Hydrotherapy purists might, on the other hand, suggest that in order to recieve true hydrotherapy, one must come into contact with a mineral-rich spring, such as those found in New Mexico’s Oja Caliente’s mineral springs, for example. 

Waters that spring out of the earth contain trace elements that can’t be obtained so easily elsewhere, and which elements you will receive in this type of spa treatment will depend on exactly which spring you are visiting.  Which spring you will want to visit to receive your treatment will again depend on what your illness or ailment is, as certain springs lend themselves better to helping certain ailments.

When it comes to hot tubs that you can buy for the home, many hydrotherapists would argue that there is much to be desired in calling your average hot tub a true source of true hydrotherapy.  Some may even say it is not hydrotherapy at all.  This is because the cleaners that are present in the water (much like pool cleaners) makes the water safe for the hot tub to be used in the conventional way, yes, but also, we must be wary because our skin absorbs those chemicals, and this sanitized hot tub water is obviously not the same water you will find coming out of the earth at a true mineral spring.

That said, we mustn’t be snobs when it comes to hydrotherapy, since not everyone has access to expensive treatments or taking trips to where treatments can be had.  Most of us will take therapy where we can get it, as many of us need it now, and there is certainly much therapy to be had by your average hot tub, as it provides a place to relax and soak, adjust jets to provide pressure as per the definition of hydrotherapy that involves such jets.  You can also change the temperature to suit your needs as well.  In this respect, you are now becoming the therapist for yourself, so be careful and also be knowledgeable.  It’s true that if you know a thing or two about hot tub cleaners, you can change the chemical nature of the water in your hot tub to better suit your needs simply by being aware of what you are putting in your hot tub, and why.

Let’s also not forget that certain spa bathtubs of different shapes and sizes can be found, and some of these are especially designed to provide a treatment closer to you might find in a natural mineral spa.

In conclusion, hydrotherapy is an ancient field and there are a multitude of practices within that field that can bring you and yours good health.  And so, learn as much as you can, assess what you want to gain from hydrotherapy, and then go forth and get it!  If you’re sick, we wish you well, and if you’re currently well, we wish you even better health. 

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