Open the feel-good floodgates. Hydrotherapy is a term that’s used to refer to a range of water treatments including submersed sports massage, temperature-controlled baths, spa hot tubs, enemas and healing methods that involve drinking quantities of water. Different practitioners use the term to mean different things, but the common element in them all is the wet stuff: fresh, clear, life-giving water.
Every treatment centre is a little bit different, but you’ll find that most of the hydrotherapy treatments available are based on the Kneipp system. This involves using herbal and mineral baths at different temperatures to relax, stimulate and aid the body’s natural healing processes. You can dabble, paddle and adapt the treatment to your needs or go full-on and plunge into the traditional Kneipp system, which involves a special diet, large quantities of water to drink, an exercise plan and an element of spiritual meditation.
We all know we’re supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day, but according to hydrotherapy, there are more benefits to be gained from a good glug of H2O than a glowing complexion. Drinking large quantities of water is thought to act as a laxative and a diuretic, helping you to bail out your body’s waste products and toxins more quickly. According to the Kneipp system, a lot of water can also increase the amount you sweat and produce phlegm, which may not be glamorous, but both are vital to your body’s waste-disposal system.
If you’ve ever had a hot bath after a hard day’s work, you’ll know that it can relieve tension – both in your mind and your muscles. It can also boost your blood and lymphatic circulation and generally act as a sedative, which is great if you’re feeling stressed and fidgety, or if you’re finding it hard to get your forty winks. A cold bath, on the other hand, can make your body temperature and your heart rate drop within just a few minutes, which is great for numbing inflamed joints, reducing blood flow to an area and calming swelling.
Hydrotherapy uses a pick’n’mix of baths and pools at different temperatures to soak your aches and pains away. For example there’s the shallow sitz bath, which only covers you from the waist down or there are full-body tanks which you can stand in up to your shoulder. In these new-fangled times, you might even be lucky enough to use specialised massage jet streams and steam baths too.
There are oceans of different uses for hydrotherapy, so each session will be tailored to your physical needs – you might have a serious physical injury or you might just want to relax and forget your inbox for an hour. A session can involve anything from a 15-minute footbath to two hours of targeted water treatment, submersing different areas of your body.
If you are referred for hydrotherapy on the NHS, this is most likely to be a supervised exercise session in a pool or series of pools. Your doctor might recommend this to help rehabilitate you after a stroke, spinal damage or muscular injury. It’s like physiotherapy, but because it takes place in a pool the water supports your bodyweight making it easier on poorly joints and weakened muscles until you’re in good enough shape to work out on dry land.
If you book a hydrotherapy session at a spa, make sure you check what’s included in the price because sometimes this just means access to their hydrotherapy pools rather than a consultation and personal treatment.
Hydrotherapy is used to treat a mind-boggling array of different physical and emotional problems, including: inflammation, constipation, cramps, haemorrhoids, menstrual problems, varicose veins, insomnia, headaches, high blood pressure, back pain, rheumatism, stress, joint or bone damage, muscular aches, strokes and spinal damage.
The Kneipp system was invented by Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-97). He developed what later became known as the ‘cold water cure’ and then hydrotherapy after treating his own rib injuries with bandages soaked in cold water.