Hydrotherapy: Overview

Alternative names: Water Therapy.

The goal of hydrotherapy is to improve the circulation and quality of blood and thus initiate recovery or cure.  If circulation is poor, healing nutrients cannot be delivered and waste products/toxins cannot be removed, which causes degeneration of the tissues and organs.

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Water therapy is available in a wide variety of applications and is useful in a broad range of conditions.  The benefits of hydrotherapy include:

  • Wide availability
  • Limited side-effects
  • Inexpensive
  • Can be done at home.

Function; Why it is Recommended

Below is an overview of some of the different forms of hydrotherapy.

Contrast Hydrotherapy
Alternating hot and cold is a common hydrotherapy treatment.  The hot application expands blood vessels, filling them with blood, and the cold application causes constriction, forcing the blood elsewhere.  Hot and cold water can be applied to any part of the body that is inflamed, congested, or injured.  Treatment normally consists of applying a hot cloth for 3 minutes then a cold cloth for 30 seconds, alternating 3 times in a row.  The treatment can be done several times a day.  The amount of time the hot and cold is applied may vary (for example 5 minutes hot, 1 minute cold) so long as the cold application is of shorter duration than the hot.  It is also very important to end the treatment with the cold application.  The hot application may be quite hot, but never hot enough to burn or scald.

Water works on the body reflexively.  This means that when water is applied to one part of the body, other parts of the body are also stimulated by reflex action.  For example, if the left foot is fractured and in a cast, an alternating hot and cold treatment can be performed on the right foot.  Because of the reflexive action, the left foot will obtain the benefits of the hydrotherapy treatment even though it was done on the right foot.  This principle is also used when a hot and cold treatment is applied to the feet to treat problems in the head and neck.

Baths and Showers
Baths and showers can be healthy and healing.  A hot bath or shower can encourage relaxation, reduce stress and flush out toxins.  Adding essential oils or herbs to the bath can enhance the therapeutic benefits.  Cold baths and showers can be energizing and stimulating; a rinse of cold water after a hot shower can invigorate, boost the immune system, and improve blood flow.

Hot Foot Bath
A hot foot bath is the immersion of both feet and ankles in hot water for 10-30 minutes and is an excellent way to draw blood from inflamed or congested areas of the body.  This form of treatment is recommended for foot and leg cramps, sore throat, cold, flu, nausea, insomnia, and chest or pelvic congestion.

Wrap the upper body in a blanket to avoid chilling.  Using a large dishpan or the bathtub, immerse both feet and ankles in warm water.  Keep adding hot water until it is as hot as can be tolerated.  Place a cool washcloth on the forehead (keep the washcloth cool during entire treatment by wringing it out in cool water).  Keep feet in the water for 10-30 minutes depending on tolerance.  As the water cools, add more hot water to maintain the hot temperature.  After removing the feet from the water, rinse them with cool water and dry them thoroughly.

This treatment is not recommended for patients with peripheral vascular disease (arteriosclerosis, deep vein thrombosis, Buerger's disease), diabetes or loss of peripheral sensation.

Heating Compress
The heating compress is an application of a cold compress to an area that is initially cooled by the water and then warmed by the influx of blood to the area.  It is an effective therapy for sore throat, cold, flu, and sinus congestion when it is administered to the throat or feet.  When the feet are treated, it is also known as warming socks or a wet socks treatment.

Make sure feet are warm and dry.  If necessary, warm feet in warm water before beginning treatment.  Wet a pair of white cotton socks in cold water and wring them out well.  The socks should be damp but not dripping wet.  Place the socks on both feet.  Place wool socks (preferably 100% but no less than 80% wool) over the cotton socks and go to bed.  In the morning, the socks should be dry.  Perform this treatment every night while congestion/illness lasts.  This form of treatment is not used for conditions irritated by moisture or for very weak individuals.

Sitz Bath
The 'sitting' or 'hip' bath applies the principles of hydrotherapy to stimulate circulation in the pelvic area.  The usual practice is to use alternating hot and cold baths.  At one time Sitz baths were used extensively in medical practice, but they are now largely ignored because of inconvenience, even though they have proven beneficial in stimulating recovery.

You will need two large plastic containers, big enough to hold your hips, buttocks, and lower abdomen comfortably, yet fit inside the bathtub or shower.  Sturdy storage containers are available in a variety of sizes from retail stores.  Fill one container with hot water (106-110°F, 41-43°C), so that when seated the water covers your navel.  Fill the other with cold water (55-75°F, 12-24°C), perhaps slightly less full than the hot one.

Carefully ease yourself into the hot water.  The water should be almost uncomfortably hot, but not to the point of scalding.  Remain immersed for 2 to 5 minutes and just when it starts to get comfortable, transfer yourself to the cold bucket.  Be prepared for a shock.  Force yourself to sit there for 20 to 60 seconds.  After this time or when it begins to feel tolerable, return to the hot container.  Repeat this process at least three times and as often as once per day.  You should begin your treatment with the hot bath and finish with the cold.

People who should not use this form of treatment include those with peripheral vascular disease (arteriosclerosis, deep vein thrombosis, Buerger's disease), diabetes, acute bladder infections, and loss of peripheral sensation.

Constitutional Hydrotherapy
The constitutional hydro is a series of hot and cold towels applied to the chest and back.  This treatment is more involved than other hydrotherapy treatments but is very effective for almost every condition.  Naturopathic physicians use this method for promoting overall health and immune system function.  Treating yourself by this method is not recommended.  Contraindicators include acute asthma and acute bladder infections.

The poultice is the external application of herbs to treat wounds, infections and muscular, joint, skin or glandular conditions.

Constitutional Hydrotherapy is recommended for:

Hydrotherapy can help with the following:


Phlebitis / Thrombophlebitis

Hot packs may be helpful for superficial thrombophlebitis but probably will not benefit deep vein thrombosis.  Taking alternating hot and cold sitz baths or using alternating hot and cold compresses may help improve circulation in the affected area.

Hypotension (Low Blood Pressure)

Heating the skin draws more blood to the surface and increases the risk of lowered blood pressure.  Avoid prolonged exposure to hot water, such as hot showers and spas.  If you get dizzy, sit down.  It may be helpful to keep a chair or stool in the shower in case you need to sit; to help prevent injury, use a chair or stool that is specifically designed for showers or bath tubs.


Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Sitz baths can powerfully affect the organs of the lower abdomen and pelvis.

Vaginitis/Vaginal Infection

Sitz baths can powerfully affect the organs of the lower abdomen and pelvis.


Not recommended for
Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)

Sitz baths may be used for chronic cystitis, but should not be used in acute cases.

Neck / Spine

Low Back Pain

A warm bath with Epsom salts and/or heating pad two to three times for 20-30 minutes or longer, can help.

Nervous System

Bell's Palsy

The use of eye drops can be important in treating BP.  The 'dry eye' and associated problems are caused by a combination of things.  For some people the tear gland may not be producing moisture.  Blinking is the mechanism that protects the eye from external debris and spreads tears over the cornea.  Under normal circumstances we blink every 5-7 seconds and with every blink the eyelid spreads moisture over the cornea.  With facial paralysis the ability to blink may be disrupted; eyelid closure can be weak or the eye can be stuck wide open.  Take action if the eye feels uncomfortable.  Manually blink your eye using the back of your finger at regular intervals, especially when it feels dry.  A stinging or burning sensation can mean the eye is too dry, even if tears are apparent.  The 7th nerve does not control focus, so if you are experiencing blurred vision, don't ignore it.  It may be a warning of a dry cornea that needs to be protected.


Hives (Urticaria)

An alkaline sponge bath may be helpful to reduce the itching.  Add one teaspoon of baking soda to each pint of very hot bath water and soak.



Various forms of hydrotherapy have to been used to treat insomnia.  The neutral bath tends to sedate disturbed people.

Tumors, Benign

Ovarian Cysts

Hydrotherapy applied to the abdomen may help prevent a cyst from rupturing.  It increases circulation in the pelvic area which in turn promotes healing and reduces pain during the treatment of ovarian cysts.

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Hydrotherapy can help prevent the following:


Pharyngitis ("Strep Throat")

Gargling with very warm salt water hourly can ease the pain and reduce the duration of a sore throat.  Sometimes it works so well that people forget to continue gargling after the first couple of times and the sore throat returns.  Use at least 12 teaspoon salt per cup of water.  The water should be no hotter than your immersed finger is able to tolerate.

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May be useful: may help with
May be useful:
may help with
Moderately useful: often helps with
Moderately useful:
often helps with
Very useful: is highly recommended for; usually prevents
Very useful:
is highly recommended for; usually prevents
Often counterindicated: is often not recommended for
Often counterindicated:
is often not recommended for
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