Hydrotherapy is the use of water to maintain health or promote healing. Ice, steam, and hot, tepid, and cold water are all used in a number of different ways--some widely accepted, others controversial. For example, external treatments, such as the application of ice to a sprained ankle or soaking in a hot tub to soothe sore muscles, have become common remedies and some are universally prescribed by both conventional and alternative practitioners, particularly naturopaths. However, internal therapies such as colonic irrigation are considered suspect and even dangerous by most mainstream doctors.
In the 1850s "hydropaths," or physicians and lay persons trained in the use of water therapies, were the single largest group of health care practitioners. The water-cure movement, which originated with Father Kneipp in Germany, enjoyed 50 plus years of vogue in the U.S. with many well known advocates from writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to famous 7th Day Adventists and Abolitionists. One of the central tenets of hydropathy was that the patients become responsible for their own health care. The hydropath aspired to empower the patient with a recognition of their own wisdom. Cold water was considered the universal elixir for disease.
One of the tried and true standbys of Naturopathic Medicine is the use of "constitutional hydrotherapy" which employs alternating hot and cold towels to an affected area of the body. For example, a chest cold will benefit enormously from applying first hot, then ice-cold towels or compresses to the bared chest. The technique calls for 3 minutes of hot followed by 30 seconds to 1 minute of cold. This sequence is repeated at least three times, and always ends with cold. The easiest, preventive, form of hydrotherapy is to chase your morning hot shower with all cold water for at least 30 seconds and make sure to thoroughly cool the armpits, genital areas, head, hands and feet. These are centers of lymphatic drainage. To embellish the treatment, firmly tap your upper central chest just under the notch at the base of the throat, to invigorate the thymus gland. This will actually keep you warmer on a winter's day because of the circulatory stimulation. By the same principle one can achieve excellent results in bringing down a fever, especially in children, by applying frozen cold cotton socks to the feet and covering them with dry wool socks. This will stimulate circulation in the lower extremities by requiring the feet to pull down heat, drawing it away from the head. Put a feverish kid to bed with this double sock routine and their sleep is guaranteed to be more restful. Be creative! The basic idea of alternating hot (3 minutes) with cold (30 seconds to 1 minute) can work with sauna to cold plunge, 2 hip-bath tubs, running water from 2 faucets on a sprained wrist or ankle, etc.
Constitutional hydrotherapy is a special technique which greatly improves recovery from many illness, both acute and chronic, such as fatigue, arthritis, bronchitis, food poisoning, heart disease, influenza and chronic constipation to name a few. It has been used successfully by thousands of naturopathic physicians for over a century and at one time was standard medical treatment for many illnesses, in hospitals and clinics. Hydrotherapy works so well because it acts to stimulate the body's own healing force. During the treatment the patient lies comfortably on a soft table while hot towels are applied over the upper torso. The person is then wrapped in a sheet and covered with several layers of blankets. Once the skin is warmed, a single cold towel is exchanged for the heated one. The body, well prepared by the preceding warmth, reacts to this temperature change by greatly increasing the blood flow to the skin and the internal organs of the chest and abdomen. Hydrotherapy researchers have shown that a reflex increase in blood flow occurs in internal organs when the circulation to the overlying skin is stimulated. It is this internal reaction which is responsible for the long lasting and cumulative effects of a series of hydrotherapy treatments. Research has further shown that the beneficial effects on the immune system last for up to 24 hours making this a very effective therapy for any disorder involving immune function. To enhance these effects, a mild electrical stimulation is applied over the spine during the treatment. Certain modifications may be made during the therapy depending on the persons ability to react to it and the type of disease being addressed.
The benefits of constitutional hydrotherapy include an improvement in sleep, digestion, bowel function, an increase in your energy level and a reduction in chronic pain. We have found that other naturopathic therapies such as herbal medicines, special diets or homeopathy often work better due to concurrent constitutional hydrotherapy treatments. Some of our colleagues however, rely entirely on hydrotherapy to produce cures of many serious and seemingly incurable illnesses.
Water has been part of the therapeutic arsenal since the beginning of civilization. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates promoted the healthful effects of taking a bath. Regular trips to the bathhouse were part of the Roman regimen for good health and hygiene. The most rapid growth of hydrotherapy, however, occurred in Germany during the nineteenth century, when Vincenz Priessnitz (1799-1851) and Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) established independent hydrotherapy centers there.
Although many in the scientific community questioned the effects of hydrotherapy, its popularity spread. By the late-nineteenth century, hydrotherapy centers had begun to spring up in the United States in places like Saratoga Springs, New York, Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Warm Springs, Georgia. Seeking cures for everything from arthritis to warts, wealthy visitors came regularly to these early spas to "take the waters."
Hydrotherapy gained some scientific credence in 1900, when J. H. Kellogg, a medical doctor and the brother of the founder of the cereal empire, published his book Rational Hydrotherapy. Documenting Kellogg's numerous research experiments on the therapeutic effects of water, the book quickly became the definitive work on the subject. It is still used today by many naturopaths, who learn hydrotherapy as part of their training.
The basic properties of water allow this nontoxic and readily available substance to be used in many aspects of patient care. Not only does water keep people hydrated, its universal solvent properties make it essential for cleaning wounds and preventing infection. Water is also useful in its other physical states: Steam can open clogged sinuses; ice packs can relieve swelling.
Hydrotherapy also takes advantage of water's unique ability to store and transmit both cold and heat. Cold-based hydrotherapies, such as ice packs and cold compresses, have what is known as a "depressant" effect: Cold decreases normal activity, constricting blood vessels, numbing nerves, and slowing respiration. On the other hand, heat-based hydrotherapies, such as whirlpools and hot compresses, have the opposite effect. As the body attempts to throw off the excess heat and keep body temperature from rising, dilation of blood vessels occurs, providing increased circulation to the area being treated.
Contrast hydrotherapies, which typically involve compresses or immersion, alternate heat with cold and are mainly used to dramatically stimulate local circulation. For example, a 30-minute contrast bath to the lower extremities (four minutes hot, one minute cold, repeated for a total of 30 minutes) can produce a 95% increase in local blood flow.
Today hydrotherapy is a part of the physical therapy department of virtually every hospital and medical center. Various techniques using water are considered standard strategies for rehabilitation and relief of pain. Exercises in hydrotherapy pools, whirlpool baths, and swimming pools are among the basic offerings that continue to be a part of the long heritage of hydrotherapeutic techniques. Some treatments are done only by a complementary-care specialist, such as a naturopathic doctor; others require the supervision of a trained therapist. After examining you and taking your history, the doctor will explain how you can perform the appropriate therapy for your condition yourself or will send you to an appropriate facility.
Ideal for strains, sprains, and bruises, icing can easily be done at home if the injury isn't too severe. If you sprain your ankle while jogging, for example, the best thing you can do is go right home and ice it to minimize the swelling and internal bleeding. Be sure to wrap the ice--whether It's ice cubes in a plastic bag or a gel pack--in a towel. Putting ice directly on your skin can cause nerve damage. Keep the ice in place for 20 minutes. Depending on the severity of the injury, repeat the ice application every two hours for 24 hours. After this time, taking a hot shower or bath, or applying a hot compress, can increase circulation to the injured area and speed the healing process.
To make a compress, a cloth is soaked in hot or cold water and then wrung out so the desired amount of moisture remains. Single or double compresses may be used. A single compress simply involves placing one layer of the wet cloth over the affected area. A double compress involves putting a dry material such as wool or flannel over the wet compress. When using hot water, the double compress serves to retain the heat. When using cold water, the body gradually warms the compress and the transition from cold to warm adds to the therapeutic value. A cold compress can be used to prevent or relieve congestion, reduce blood flow to an area, and inhibit inflammation. A hot compress can have an analgesic effect, thereby decreasing pain. Hot compresses can also be used to lessen the discomfort from menstrual cramps and irritable bowel syndrome, and to increase blood flow to a particular part of the body. A hot or cold compress (depending on individual preference) can relieve a headache.
Sitz Baths And Baths
You can use baths to either immerse the entire body or simply the affected body part. Hot full-immersion baths can help with arthritic discomfort and conditions where muscles are in painful spasm, such as fibromyalgia. For a neutral (or tepid) bath the temperature should be neither too hot nor too cold. These are mainly used for relaxation purposes and to treat stress-related ailments such as insomnia, anxiety, and nervous exhaustion. Cool baths can relieve irritation and itching caused by hives or other skin disorders.
Taking sitz baths involves partially immersing the pelvic region. A hot sitz bath can help reduce pain from hemorrhoids, menstrual cramps, and sciatica. A neutral sitz bath is best for bladder infections or severe itching in the anal region. A cold sitz bath constricts blood vessels and may be helpful for excess vaginal bleeding and mild constipation. A contrast sitz bath--from hot to cold--increases circulation in the pelvis and may be useful for chronic prostatitis and pelvic infections. You can buy a special sitz-bath seat to fit over your toilet seat or you can simply sit in your bathtub.
Cold Friction Rubs
A friction rub involves massaging a particular area of the body with a rough washcloth, terry towel, or loofah, that has first been place in ice water. Friction rubs have a tonifying effect on the body, increasing circulation and tightening muscles.
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