Hydrotherapy, also called water or aqua therapy, is best known as a system of exercises designed for pools. Resistance exercises done in water are easier on the joints because the buoyancy reduces the pressure on them. Hydrotherapy has also been shown to reduce pain and inflammation caused by arthritis.
In addition to aquatic based exercises, hydrotherapy also includes any medical use of water, including cold water therapies, ice packs, vapors, saunas, hot tubs or spas, water massage, and hot springs, which can be naturally mineral-rich. Similarly, some immersion therapies add herbs or oils for added benefits.
Hydrotherapy has been used for thousands of years, with the earliest records dating back to 500 B.C. in Greece, when the famous ancient physician Hippocrates first used the treatment, then called a water cure, by having patients bath in spring water. Other ancient civilizations including the Chinese, Egyptians, and Romans also discovered the benefits of water therapies. Roman engineers built communal public baths meant to promote health and wellbeing. Egyptians believed aromatic oils added to water improved healing process.
During the Renaissance doctors treated a number of conditions by prescribing baths in sulfur springs or in water rich in bromine and iodine. As medical knowledge advanced, hydrotherapies gained popularity first in Europe and then around the world.
Today, hydrotherapy is considered an important rehabilitation tool because it offers patients a variety of benefits, such as better blood circulation and increased production of endorphins, which boosts the immune system, reduces inflammation, repairs damaged tissue, provides extra energy, and improves overall physical and emotional well-being. Research suggests hydrotherapy also helps the body remove waste products, improves sleep, and can prevent the onset of headaches.
Patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis have reported relief from hot tub treatments, particularly when paired with massage therapy or water exercises. Studies conducted by researchers at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health, found that hydrotherapy appears to pose few risks as long as common sense guidelines are followed, such as not exposing the patient’s body to too extreme of temperatures for extended periods and drinking extra water to prevent dehydration.
However, hydrotherapy can pose risk in certain situations such as if the patient suffers from heart or lung disease; has neuropathy or nerve damage; is pregnant; or has a pacemaker or other implanted device.