If you've soaked in a hot mineral spring, stood under a cascading waterfall, or floated in a tropical ocean, you've experienced the power of hydrotherapy in its most natural form. From the sweat lodges of indigenous cultures to the elaborate bathhouses of ancient Egypt to modern-day wellness retreats, water has been used as a source of rejuvenation, rehabilitation, and well-being for thousands of years.
In this article, we do a deep dive into the wonders of hydrotherapy, exploring its transformative benefits and how you can use this timeless practice to soothe your body and soul.
What is Hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy is a therapeutic practice that utilizes water's ability to transfer heat, energy, and minerals to promote physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Water may be one of the oldest therapeutic tools used by humankind. The Great Bath, built by the prehistoric Indus Valley Civilization in what is now Pakistan, dates back to the third Millenium BCE and is thought to be the oldest public water tank in the ancient world, most likely used to purify and rejuvenate bathers during religious ceremonies. Water was also harnessed and used for healing, sanitation, and entertainment by ancient Greeks, Romans, Indians, and indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica. It has also been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years.
Water is already an integral part of our biochemical and biophysical makeup — our bodies contain over 60 percent water — so it makes sense hydrotherapy is used to leverage water's therapeutic advantages efficiently.
Several of the awesome health-promoting properties of water include:
- Buoyancy: You float in water because the density of water is similar to the density of your body.When you are in water, there is less load on your muscles and joints. They don’t have to support the weight of your body the way they do on land or work as hard to hold your posture or move your limbs. Water-based activities are often recommended for people with joint problems, especially those affecting the spine.REF#2639
- Heat Retention: Water stores heat as much as four times as long as air and conducts heat effectively to warm or cool the body uniformly during hot and cold hydrotherapy. Energy transfer is optimized.REF#2640 REF#2641
- Hydrostatic Pressure: The pressure exerted by water drives fluids from the extremities to the thoracic area, improving blood circulation and lymphatic flow as well as delivering oxygen and nutrients to muscles faster. Hydrostatic pressure may reduce swelling, strengthen respiratory muscles and limit the formation of edema.REF#2642
- Membrane Diffusion: As water permeates cell membranes, it facilitates the diffusion of minerals, nutrients, and hydration at the cellular level to optimize bodily functions.REF#2643
- Viscosity: Water's high viscosity provides resistance for range of motion and strength training without taxing joints.REF#2642
Hydrotherapy encompasses a variety of water-based treatments that use temperature, pressure, or aquatic activities to target specific health concerns.
Cold, warm, and hot water have been shown to affect multiple systems, including musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiac, gastrointestinal, nervous, and hormonal. Additionally, scientific studies suggest that water therapy can be used to support emotional well-being.REF#2644
How Water Temperature and Pressure Affect the Body
When prescribed by a healthcare provider, hydrotherapy can be used strategically to affect specific areas of the body by altering the water's temperature or its pressure to produce the desired physiological responses.
Hot Water Therapy
During hot water therapy, when blood vessels are exposed to hot water (35o to 40oC), they dilate (vasodilation), which improves blood circulation and blood flow throughout the body. This also helps lower blood pressure. The improved circulation can reduce muscle soreness and ease joint pain.
Heat exposure also promotes sweating, which helps rid your body of toxins and waste products. The relaxation induced by hot water may also lower stress hormones and reduce anxiety levels.
Limiting hot water exposure to safe durations is essential, as overheating can occur and cause health risks like dehydration or fainting. Moderation is key to gaining the soothing, pain-relieving benefits of heat therapy through water.
Cold Water Therapy
During cold water therapy, exposing your body to cold water (5oC to 15oC/41oF to 59oF) causes blood vessels to constrict (vasoconstriction) and reduces blood flow to an area, potentially reducing inflammation and swelling. It will also help cool down your body more quickly after an intense workout or time spent in excessive heat.
While certain cultures regularly practice swimming in ice-cold water, there is insufficient research to support claims that it will improve circulation, the immune system, energy, and mental health. In fact, prolonged exposure to extremely cold water can be dangerous and lead to hypothermia.
There is no established temperature for performing cold water therapy, but whatever temperature you use, you should only be in cold water for a few minutes. You can start with lukewarm water and gradually lower the temperature by a few degrees to the point you can tolerate it. Or jump right into a cold shower or bath and stay only as long as tolerable, which could be a minute or two. Build up your tolerance to cold water slowly until you experience the invigorating effects of cold exposure.
Water Pressure Therapy
Applying water pressure to your body, such as in a hot tub or hydromassage table, helps stimulate blood circulation, especially to your extremities. This improved circulation can reduce swelling, heal wounds faster, and aid recovery from muscle soreness and sore joints. The water pressure also promotes relaxation by loosening tense muscles.
Too much pressure from high-powered water streams can cause discomfort, so moderation is key when using water pressure as therapy.
6 Forms of Hydrotherapy and Their Benefits
A wide range of techniques utilize water in different ways to achieve specific therapeutic effects. Here are some of the primary forms of hydrotherapy, the specific effects associated with each, and the cost ranges for implementing them in your health routine:
1. Water Immersion
One of the most common and ancient forms of hydrotherapy involves immersing your body in hot, warm, or cold water while keeping your head above the water. The appropriate water temperature for immersion hydrotherapy depends on the specific health conditions you’re trying to support.
Research suggests water immersion can be used to support:REF#2645
- Cardiac Health: Hot or warm water immersion can be a soothing way to achieve a range of benefits. In a recent study review of the effects of warm water, warm water immersion was found to induce flow-mediated dilation of the arteries, eliciting the same impact on cardiopulmonary function as cardiovascular exercise.
- Brain Health: Warm water immersion increases blood flow to the brain, which may improve short-term cognitive function.
- Muscle Relaxation: Hot water helps to soothe tense muscles, reduce muscle spasms, and relieve muscle soreness.
- Pain Relief: Hot water can support the relief of discomfort caused by injuries and arthritis pain and discomfort caused by injuries. Cold immersion can improve circulation and numb nerve endings, providing pain relief, especially for acute injuries.
- Inflammation: Cold water constricts blood vessels, reducing swelling and inflammation in injured areas.
- Stress Reduction: Soaking in a hot bath induces a sense of relaxation, reducing stress and anxiety levels.
You can enjoy water immersion in a natural mineral hot spring, a bathtub or portable tub at home, or a spa pool in a gym or physical training facility.
Hot springs contain various minerals that may contribute to wellness and provide therapeutic benefits. These minerals may have a direct effect on your skin as well as underlying tissues. Some minerals, when absorbed through the skin, can enter the bloodstream and affect the body.
The specific mineral composition of the water can vary depending on the geographical location and the geological characteristics of the hot spring. Some of the common minerals found in hot springs and their potential wellness effects include:
- Sulfur: Sulfur is believed to be beneficial for skin health. Soaking in sulfur-rich hot springs is thought to help with skin health.
- Calcium: Soaking in calcium-rich hot springs may support healthy bones and aid in muscle relaxation and recovery.
- Magnesium: Immersing in magnesium-rich hot springs may promote muscle relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety.
- Sodium: Sodium can help in maintaining fluid balance in the body and may have a relaxing effect on muscles and joints.
- Silica: Silica, also known as silicon dioxide, may have benefits for skin health, promoting collagen production and improving skin elasticity.REF#2646
While hot springs are believed to offer various therapeutic benefits, scientific research on the specific effects of hot spring minerals on wellness is ongoing. If you have a specific medical condition, you should consult with your healthcare provider before soaking in a mineral-rich hot spring.
Compresses are another form of hydrotherapy that involves applying either hot or cold wet cloths, bandages, or packs to specific body areas as appropriate.
Compresses can be an inexpensive and targeted way to deliver the therapeutic benefits of hydrotherapy to localized regions. They can be particularly helpful in the immediate aftermath of an injury to reduce swelling, ease pain, and limit bruising. They may also help to relieve:
- Muscle pain
- Muscle tension
- Menstrual cramps
The choice between using hot and cold depends on the specific condition you’re treating and the desired effects. Compresses can be made from materials you already have at home, such as washcloths or rags, but these may not retain heat or cold as long as you’d like. You can purchase reusable hot/cold gel packs you put in the microwave to heat or in the freezer to cool for under $20. You can also buy instant hot or cold packs that you activate by shaking or squeezing for about $1 to $2 per pack.
3. Contrast Hydrotherapy
For certain conditions, contrast hydrotherapy, which involves alternating between hot and cold, may be beneficial in stimulating circulation and promoting healing.
Contrast hydrotherapy leverages the different effects of hot and cold therapies for enhanced benefits and may be helpful for:
- Reducing edema and swelling after injuries
- Muscle recovery after intense exercise
- Alleviating pain and stiffness
- Improving circulation
- Boosting energy levels
Most people perform contrast hydrotherapy under the supervision of a physical therapist or athletic trainer. If you do it yourself, it's best to go from hot to cold rather than vice versa. Start wtih three to five minutes of hot water followed by one minute of cold water. Repeat these steps for up to 20 minutes. Stay hydrated and avoid extremes of heat or cold.
4. Whirlpools and Hydro-Massage
Whirlpools and home spas (also called hot tubs) have water jets that provide targeted massage to your muscles and whole body.
Targeted underwater massage with jets helps relieve lower back pain, shoulder tension, sore muscles, and joint pain. Water massage combines the benefits of hydrotherapy with massage therapy for relaxing and therapeutic effects. The constant pressure improves circulation and drainage to reduce inflammation. Whirlpool action has also been shown to have a calming effect, enhancing well-being and reducing anxiety.
Home spas can cost from a low of $300 for an inflatable tub to over $35,000 for a premium in-ground spa that fits eight or more people. An above-ground portable hard-sided hot tub starts at around $2,000. Some hot tubs use standard 100-volt outlets, while others require 220/240 volts. Keeping a hot tub heated can add $30 to $100 monthly to your electric bill.
5. Steam Rooms and Saunas
A steam room is a small, warm, humid room with water-resistant tile walls, floors, and benches. It is heated by a generator that converts water into hot, moist vapor. The room is sealed to retain moist heat and steam and create a 100% humid environment.
The air temperature in a steam room is generally between 110 and 120°F (43-50°C). The high humidity makes these temperatures feel hotter than in a typical dry sauna.
Steam opens pores, increases circulation, and rids the body of wastes by inducing sweating. A steam room can be used to support:
- Detoxification: Sweating in steam rooms and saunas aids in the elimination of toxins from the body.
- Skin Cleansing: The warmth and perspiration open pores, helping to cleanse the skin.
- Respiratory Benefits: Inhaling steam can help alleviate congestion and respiratory issues.
It generally takes 10 to 20 minutes in a steam room to induce sweating. Taking a cool shower after you sit in a steam room can close your skin’s pores.
Steam rooms can be found in spas, gyms, and higher-end homes. Spas often include steam rooms for use before other spa treatments. A two-person steam room costs an average of $3,500 to $5000 to install. Using the steam room at a gym or spa is generally included in the cost of using the facility.
6. Aquatic Therapy
Aquatic therapy is physical exercise and rehabilitation performed in a warm water pool. The water provides gentle resistance and assists in supporting your body weight, making it ideal for injury recovery and pain relief.
Water's buoyancy protects your joints while allowing you to move freely with a greater range of motion. Aquatic therapy improves strength, balance, and cardiovascular fitness without the stress often caused by high-impact exercise.
Research has shown a three-month period of aquatic therapy to be effective for chronic lower back pain, sleep quality, and quality of life.REF#2647 Aquatic therapy is also often prescribed after surgery and for injuries.
For therapeutic purposes, you should expect to do aquatic exercise treatments for four weeks or more. Your insurance may cover the cost. The national average cost of an aquatic therapy session is about $116.
If you are considering adding hydrotherapy to your health maintenance or rehabilitation routine, talk with your healthcare provider about how to get started. While water immersion is generally safe for healthy individuals, if you have any health issues, you’ll want to work with a trained expert to ensure your hydrotherapy is tailored to your individual needs. Professional guidance also will help you get the most from hydrotherapy without risking potential complications.
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