Hydrotherapy, formerly called hydropathy, is a part of medicine, in particular of naturopathy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy, that involves the use of water for pain relief and treatment. The term encompasses a broad range of approaches and therapeutic methods that take advantage of the physical properties of water, such as temperature and pressure, for therapeutic purposes, to stimulate blood circulation and treat the symptoms of certain diseases.
Water therapy may be restricted to use in physical therapy, and as a cleansing agent. However, it is also used as a medium for delivery of heat and cold to the body, which has long been the basis for its application. Hydrotherapy involves a range of methods and techniques, many of which use water as a medium to facilitate thermoregulatory reactions for therapeutic benefit.
Practitioners of hydrotherapy may seek use it to produce vasodilation and vasoconstriction. These cause changes in blood flow and associated metabolic functions, via physiological mechanisms, including those of thermoregulation, that are these days fairly well understood, and which underpin the contemporary use of hydrotherapy.
When removal of tissue is necessary for the treatment of wounds, hydrotherapy which performs selective mechanical debridement can be used. Examples of this include directed wound irrigation and therapeutic irrigation with suction.
It continues to be used as an adjunct to therapy, including in nursing, where its use is now long established. It continues to be widely used for burn treatment, although shower-based hydrotherapy techniques have been increasingly used in preference to full-immersion methods, partly for the ease of cleaning the equipment and reducing infections due to contamination.
Hydrotherapy is used today in alternative medicine.
Reasons to avoid
Baths with whirlpool water flow should not be used to manage wounds because a whirlpool will not selectively target the tissue to be removed and can damage all tissue. Whirlpools also create an unwanted risk of bacterial infection, can damage fragile body tissue, and in the case of treating arms and legs, bring risk of complications from edema.
The appliances and arrangements by means of which heat and cold are brought to bear are (a) packings, hot and cold, general and local, sweating and cooling; (b) hot air and steam baths; (c) general baths, of hot water and cold; (d) sitz (sitting), spinal, head and foot baths; (e) bandages (or compresses), wet and dry; also (f) fomentations and poultices, hot and cold, sinapisms, stupes, rubbings and water potations, hot and cold.
Hydrotherapy which involves submerging all or part of the body in water can involve several types of equipment:
Full body immersion tanks (a "Hubbard tank" is a large size)
Arm, hip, and leg whirlpool
Whirling water movement, provided by mechanical pumps, has been used in water tanks since at least the 1940s. Similar technologies have been marketed for recreational use under the terms "hot tub" or "spa".
Society and culture
Modern medicine's successes, particularly with drug therapy, removed or replaced many water-related therapies during the mid-20th century.
While the physiological mechanisms were initially poorly understood, the therapeutic benefits have long been recognised, even if the reason for the therapeutic benefit was in dispute. For example, in November 1881, the British Medical Journal noted that hydropathy was a specific instance, or "particular case", of general principles of thermodynamics. That is, "the application of heat and cold in general", as it applies to physiology, mediated by hydropathy. In 1883, another writer stated "Not, be it observed, that hydropathy is a water treatment after all, but that water is the medium for the application of heat and cold to the body". Thus, the "active agents in the treatment (are) heat and cold", of which water is little more than the vehicle, and not the only one".
Although standard anatomy and physiology textbooks make only passing reference, if any, to hydrotherapy, some of the best descriptions of the underlying physiology upon which hydrotherapy relies, are to be found in such textbooks. For example, one of the best succinct descriptions of blood redistribution (which is fundamental to the above-mentioned reflex reaction), quoted below, is from a standard textbook.
...by constricting or dilating arterioles in specific areas of the body, such as skeletal muscles, the skin, and the abdominal region, it is possible not only to regulate the blood pressure but also to alter the distribution of blood in various parts of the body.
British and other hydrotherapy establishments are discussed from another standpoint in a recent history of psychiatry.
The growth of hydrotherapy, and various forms of hydropathic establishments, resulted in a form of tourism, both in the UK, and in Europe. At least one book listed English, Scottish, Irish and European establishments suitable for each specific malady, while another focused primarily on German spas and hydropathic establishments, but including other areas. While many bathing establishments were open all year round, doctors advised patients not to go before May, "nor to remain after October. English visitors rather prefer cold weather, and they often arrive for the baths in May, and return again in September. Americans come during the whole season, but prefer summer. The most fashionable and crowded time is during July and August". In Europe, interest in various forms of hydrotherapy and spa tourism continued unabated through the 19th century and into the 20th century, where "in France, Italy and Germany, several million people spend time each year at a spa." In 1891, when Mark Twain toured Europe and discovered that a bath of spring water at Aix-les-Bains soothed his rheumatism, he described the experience as "so enjoyable that if I hadn't had a disease I would have borrowed one just to have a pretext for going on".
This was not the first time such forms of spa tourism had been popular in Europe and the U.K. Indeed,
in Europe, the application of water in the treatment of fevers and other maladies had, since the seventeenth century, been consistently promoted by a number of medical writers. In the eighteenth century, taking to the waters became a fashionable pastime for the wealthy classes who decamped to resorts around Britain and Europe to cure the ills of over-consumption. In the main, treatment in the heyday of the British spa consisted of sense and sociability: promenading, bathing, and the repetitive quaffing of foul-tasting mineral waters.
A hydropathic establishment is a place where people receive hydropathic treatment. They are commonly built in spa towns, where mineral-rich or hot water occurs naturally.
Several hydropathic institutions wholly transferred their operations away from therapeutic purposes to become tourist hotels in the late 20th century whilst retaining the name 'Hydro'. There are several prominent examples in Scotland at Crieff, Peebles and Seamill amongst others.
Various forms of hydrotherapy have been recorded in ancient Egyptian, Persian,Greek and Roman civilizations. Egyptian royalty bathed with essential oils and flowers, while Romans had communal public baths for their citizens. Hippocrates prescribed bathing in spring water for sickness. Other cultures noted for a long history of hydrotherapy include China and Japan, this latter being centred primarily around Japanese hot springs, or (onsen). Many such histories predate the Roman thermae.
Modern revival of hydrotherapy
James Currie, who, according to Captain R. T. Claridge discovered "...the merit of settling the use of cold water...[and who established] the scientific base of Hydropathy"
Two English works on the medical uses of water were published in the 18th century that inaugurated the new fashion for hydrotherapy. One of these was by Sir John Floyer, a physician of Lichfield, who, struck by the remedial use of certain springs by the neighbouring peasantry, investigated the history of cold bathing and published a book on the subject in 1702. The book ran through six editions within a few years and the translation of this book into German was largely drawn upon by Dr J. S. Hahn of Silesia as the basis for his book called On the Healing Virtues of Cold Water, Inwardly and Outwardly Applied, as Proved by Experience, published in 1738.
The other work was a 1797 publication by Dr James Currie of Liverpool on the use of hot and cold water in the treatment of fever and other illness, with a fourth edition published in 1805, not long before his death. It was also translated into German by Michaelis (1801) and Hegewisch (1807). It was highly popular and first placed the subject on a scientific basis. Hahn's writings had meanwhile created much enthusiasm among his countrymen, societies having been everywhere formed to promote the medicinal and dietetic use of water; and in 1804 Professor E.F.C. Oertel of Anspach republished them and quickened the popular movement by unqualified commendation of water drinking as a remedy for all diseases.
In the 19th century, a popular revival followed the application of hydrotherapy around 1829, by Vincenz Priessnitz, a peasant farmer in Gräfenberg, then part of the Austrian Empire. This revival was continued by a Bavarian priest, Sebastian Kneipp (1821–1897), "an able and enthusiastic follower" of Priessnitz, "whose work he took up where Priessnitz left it", after he read a treatise on the cold water cure. In Wörishofen (south Germany), Kneipp developed the systematic and controlled application of hydrotherapy for the support of medical treatment that was delivered only by doctors at that time. Kneipp's own book My Water Cure was published in 1886 with many subsequent editions, and translated into many languages.
A significant factor in the popular revival of hydrotherapy was that it could be practised relatively cheaply at home. The growth of hydrotherapy (or 'hydropathy' to use the name of the time), was thus partly derived from two interacting spheres: "the hydro and the home".
Hydrotherapy as a formal medical tool dates from about 1829 when Vincenz Priessnitz (1799–1851), a farmer of Gräfenberg in Silesia, then part of the Austrian Empire, began his public career in the paternal homestead, extended so as to accommodate the increasing numbers attracted by the fame of his cures.
At Gräfenberg, to which the fame of Priessnitz drew people of every rank and many countries, medical men were conspicuous by their numbers, some being attracted by curiosity, others by the desire of knowledge, but the majority by the hope of cure for ailments which had as yet proved incurable. Many records of experiences at Gräfenberg were published, all more or less favorable to the claims of Priessnitz, and some enthusiastic in their estimate of his genius and penetration.
Spread of hydrotherapy
Hydropathic applications according to Claridge's Hydropathy book.
Captain R. T. Claridge was responsible for introducing and promoting hydropathy in Britain, first in London in 1842, then with lecture tours in Ireland and Scotland in 1843. His 10 week tour in Ireland included Limerick, Cork, Wexford, Dublin and Belfast, over June, July and August 1843, with two subsequent lectures in Glasgow.
Some other Englishmen preceded Claridge to Graefenberg, although not many. One of these was Dr. James Wilson, who himself, along with Dr James Manby Gully, established and operated a water cure establishment at Malvern in 1842. In 1843, Wilson and Gully published a comparison of the efficacy of the water-cure with drug treatments, including accounts of some cases treated at Malvern, combined with a prospectus of their Water Cure Establishment. Then in 1846 Gully published The Water Cure in Chronic Disease, further describing the treatments available at the clinic.
From the 1840s, hydropathics were established across Britain. Initially, many of these were small institutions, catering to at most dozens of patients. By the later nineteenth century the typical hydropathic establishment had evolved into a more substantial undertaking, with thousands of patients treated annually for weeks at a time in a large purpose-built building with lavish facilities – baths, recreation rooms and the like – under the supervision of fully trained and qualified medical practitioners and staff.
In Germany, France and America, and in Malvern, England, hydropathic establishments multiplied with great rapidity. Antagonism ran high between the old practice and the new. Unsparing condemnation was heaped by each on the other; and a legal prosecution, leading to a royal commission of inquiry, served but to make Priessnitz and his system stand higher in public estimation.
Increasing popularity soon diminished caution whether the new method would help minor ailments and be of benefit to the more seriously injured. Hydropathists occupied themselves mainly with studying chronic invalids well able to bear a rigorous regimen and the severities of unrestricted crisis. The need of a radical adaptation to the former class was first adequately recognized by John Smedley, a manufacturer of Derbyshire, who, impressed in his own person with the severities as well as the benefits of the cold water cure, practised among his workpeople a milder form of hydropathy, and began about 1852 a new era in its history, founding at Matlock a counterpart of the establishment at Gräfenberg.
Hydrotherapy, especially as promoted during the height of its Victorian revival, has often been associated with the use of cold water, as evidenced by many titles from that era. However, not all therapists limited their practice of hydrotherapy to cold water, even during the height of this popular revival.
The specific use of heat was however often associated with the Turkish bath. This was introduced by David Urquhart into England on his return from the East in the 1850s, and ardently adopted by Richard Barter. The Turkish bath became a public institution, and, with the morning tub and the general practice of water drinking, is the most noteworthy of the many contributions by hydropathy to public health.
Spread to the United States
The first U.S. hydropathic facilities were established by Joel Shew and R.T Trall in the 1840s. Dr Charles Munde also established early hydrotherapy facilities in the 1850s. Trall also co-edited the Water Cure Journal.
By 1850, it was said that "there are probably more than one hundred" facilities, along with numerous books and periodicals, including the New York Water Cure Journal, which had "attained an extent of circulation equalled by few monthlies in the world". By 1855, there were attempts by some to weigh the evidence of treatments in vogue at that time.
Following the introduction of hydrotherapy to the U.S., John Harvey Kellogg employed it at Battle Creek Sanitarium, which opened in 1866, where he strove to improve the scientific foundation for hydrotherapy. Other notable hydropathic centers of the era included the Cleveland Water Cure Establishment, founded in 1848, which operated successfully for two decades, before being sold to an organization which transformed it into an orphanage.
At its height, there were over 200 water-cure establishments in the United States, most located in the northeast. Few of these lasted into the postbellum years, although some survived into the 20th century including institutions in Scott (Cortland County), Elmira, Clifton Springs and Dansville. While none were located in Jefferson County, the Oswego Water Cure operated in the city of Oswego.
Cryotherapy, cold water immersion or ice bath is a new form of hydrotherapy used by physical therapists, sports medicine facilities and rehab clinics. Proponents claim improved return of blood flow and byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymphatic system and more efficient recycling.
Alternating the temperatures, either in a shower or complementary tanks, combines the use of hot and cold in the same session. Proponents claim improvement in circulatory system and lymphatic drainage. Experimental evidence suggests that contrast hydrotherapy helps to reduce injury in the acute stages by stimulating blood flow and reducing swelling.
A Beagle swimming in a harness in a hydrotherapy pool
Canine hydrotherapy is a form of hydrotherapy directed at the treatment of chronic conditions, post-operative recovery, and pre-operative or general fitness in dogs.
a.^ While the second sense, of water as a form of torture is documented back to at least the 15th century, the first use of the term water cure as a torture is indirectly dated to around 1898, by U.S. soldiers in the Spanish–American War, after the term had been introduced to America in the mid-19th century in the therapeutic sense, which was in widespread use. Indeed, while the torture sense of water cure was by 1900–1902 established in the American army, with a conscious sense of irony, this sense was not in widespread use. Webster's 1913 dictionary cited only the therapeutic sense, water cure being synonymous with hydropathy, the term by which hydrotherapy was known in the 19th century and early 20th century.
The late 19th century expropriation of the term water cure, already in use in the therapeutic sense, to denote the polar opposite of therapy, namely torture, has the hallmark of arising in the sense of irony. This would be in keeping with some of the reactions to water cure therapy and its promotion, which included not only criticism, but also parody and satire.
^ abcdUnsigned article (1910). "Hydropathy". In …. Encyclopædia BritannicaXIV. London. pp. 165–166. Retrieved 2009-10-29. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org)
^"Medicine at the Congress". British Medical Journal2 (1089): 784–785. 12 November 1881. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.1089.784.. Note: Registration to review articles is free.
^Crofts, H. Baptist (July–October 1883). "The Relation of Drugs to Medicine". in The British Quarterly Review. Vol. 78, American Edition. Philadelphia: The Leonard Scott Publishing Co. pp. 1–16 (n301–n316 in online page field). Retrieved 2009-11-05. Full text at Internet Archive (archive.org) Quotations from p.9
^Jacob, Stanley Wallace; Francone, Clarice Ashworth; Lossow, Walter J (1978). Structure and Function in Man. Philadelphia: Saunders. p. 364. ISBN0-7216-5098-8Snippet view
^Hahn, J.S. (1738). On the Power and Effect of Cold Water. Cited in Richard Metcalfe (1898), pp.5–6. Per Encyclopædia Britannica, this was also titled On the Healing Virtues of Cold Water, Inwardly and Outwardly applied, as proved by Experience
^Paul Kramer (25 February 2008). "The Water Cure". The New Yorker. Retrieved 6 December 2009. (Article describing the U.S. military expropriation of 'water cure' to denote a form of torture, with acknowledgement by one accused (p.3) of the difference in popular understanding, from the sense used by the military)
Grüber, C; Riesberg, A; Mansmann, U; Knipschild, P; Wahn, U; Bühring, M (Mar 2003). "The effect of hydrotherapy on the incidence of common cold episodes in children: a randomised clinical trial". European journal of pediatrics162 (3): 168–76. doi:10.1007/s00431-002-1138-y. PMID12655421.
Thrash, Agatha; Calvin Thrash (1981). Home Remedies: Hydrotherapy, Massage, Charcoal and Other Simple Treatments. Seale, Alabama: Thrash Publications. ISBN0-942658-02-7 (One of the most concise, well-referenced, well-illustrated and informative books produced on the topic of hydrotherapy)
Unsigned article (1910). "Hydropathy". In …. Encyclopædia BritannicaXIV. London. pp. 165–166. Retrieved 2009-10-29.