Life evolved out of a primordial soup with the coming together of elements able to reproduce, replicate, feed and mutate, hence we now have an amazing variety of earth-bound species, including homo sapiens (us). Water is a common factor – our bodies are 60 odd % water, essential for life.
Water is a fascinating substance in itself, having unique thermal, electrical and physical properties; it is readily available and inexpensive, making it an ideal medium for healing. Hydrotherapy is “the methodical use of water externally for prophylactic, therapeutic and rehabilitation purposes”.
Hydrotherapy is an integral part of naturopathy, is included in the General Naturopathic Council’s core education syllabus together with other naturopathic modalities but is currently, alas, seldom employed outside spa settings.
Whilst water is the basis for hydrotherapy, it is fact its thermal properties which heal: for hydrotherapy, read “thermotherapy”. Pioneers of this therapy, such as Vincent Preissnitz and Fr Sebastian Kneipp realised this and used cold water almost exclusively – a terrible thought nowadays, but only to produce heat in the body.
Fr. Sebastian Kneipp – a pioneer in hydrotherapy
How does it work? Water at any set temperature, when applied to the body, exerts a stimulus which in turn evokes a reaction leading to regulation. We are homeotherms, our body temperature is very closely controlled, and we are very sensitive to thermal challenges; we regulate our body temperature through chemical means (burning of energy to produce calories to increase temperature, the extreme of which is shivering) or physically by perspiration and evaporation. Both these processes are ultimately controlled by the hypothalamus.
The resulting regulation affects the body on a wide front – balancing the autonomic nervous system, locally at the site of application, via neurological and other reflexes, consensually, immunologically, hormonally and psychologically.
The water temperature and application method dictates the therapeutic effect; tepid water between 23-310 C is non-therapeutic, being near our body temperature, whilst a short cold application will cause an initial vasoconstriction followed by a secondary vasodilation causing heat; the physiological effects include a reduced heart rate, reduction in oedema, analgesia and an increase in metabolism.
Warmer applications cause vasodilation, increase heart rate, increases metabolism, reduces muscle tension and increases phagocytosis as well as being generally relaxing. Alternate (cold then hot) have probably the most profound effect with physiological changes continuing for quite some time afterwards.
The application methods are varied, lighter, more gentle means being employed in the mornings, whilst more heroic methods may be used later in the day. Washings – using a soaked flannel over designated parts of the body, wet packs (compresses and wraps), baths, affusions using a broad spray of water, showers using intermediate water pressure or douches using high pressure jets, the use of steam are all established methods, some more suited to use in spas rather than at home.
The use of hydrotherapy at home may be kept simple; Sebastian Kneipp referred to foot or arm baths as “a cup of coffee”, stimulating. Use cold water for high blood pressure, warm for low.
Arm baths may easily be done at home
Contrast thigh or whole body sprays are an excellent way to improve immunity – regularly finishing your hot shower with a cold spray increases circulating lymphocytes.
Don’t forget additives! Epsom salts in baths, herbs or herbal bath salts such as lavender for relaxation, juniper for joint pain and kidney function or chamomile for skin disorders.
NCCH, a long standing GNC member, holds short courses in hydrotherapy, concentrating on home applications which can be prescribed as part of naturopathic treatment.
Roger Groos, B.Sc., D.H.M.