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What is Hydrotherapy?

A Beagle swimming in a harness in a hydrotherapy pool

A Beagle swimming in a harness in a hydrotherapy pool

Hydrotherapy is any medical treatment with water, usually the external application of ordinary water. Broadly, the term includes the drinking of water as part of the therapeutic regimen. This applies mostly to spa therapy, which includes the drinking of mineral water. Another form of therapy is balneotherapy, which includes all therapeutic bathing, whether in mineral water, fresh- or seawater, snow, steam, or mud.

The beneficial effects of hydrotherapy are related to the temperature and pressure of the water, the type, duration, and frequency of application, and the individual to whom it is administered. Hydrotherapy is often used in the treatment and rehabilitation of people with diseases affecting the muscles. The natural buoyancy of the water enables them to move their weakened limbs more easily, and if the water is agitated, as in a whirlpool bath, the water movement provides a massaging effect.

Hydrotherapy is also used as a convenient way of warming or chilling the entire body or a part of the body. Warm water helps relax the muscles, and an alternation of hot and cold water stimulates the blood flow. Ice water, as well as snow or ice, is sometimes applied as a local anesthetic.

Forms of Hydrotherapy

In general hydrotherapy, water is applied to the entire body usually excluding the head. In local, or partia , hydrotherapy, water is applied to individual parts of the body. In both types of hydrotherapy, water may be applied by means of baths, showers, or by other methods.

Baths and Showers

In the full bath, the entire body except for the head and neck is immersed. In the half bath, the trunk is also kept out of the water. A sitzbath is for the immersion of the pelvis; the lower limbs are kept outside the container. In a contrast bath, a body part is immersed alternately in cold and warm water.

Whirlpool baths have devices that agitate the water; these baths may be used to massage the entire body or only one or two limbs. A Hubbard tank is a large whirlpool bathtub in which the patient can lie fully extended with his arms and legs wide apart. The narrowest part of the tub is in the region of the hips and lower trunk so that the therapist, standing outside, can assist the patient with his exercises.

In a shower, or shower bath, water flows in a spray of many fine filaments. The spray can be applied from above, from the side, or from below.

In a needle bath, a single filament of water is projected against the body. A nozzle at the end of the water hose can be turned to adjust the shape of the filament from that of a narrow forceful stream to that of an open fan.

Other Forms of Hydrotherapy

Wet packs are wet towels, sheets, or other materials applied to the entire body or any part of the body. For a general pack, the patient is usually placed on a wet sheet that is then wrapped around him. Local packs, also known as compresses, are often more convenient than baths for applying heat or cold to a particular area of the body.

In ablution, a sponge or towel is used to apply water to the patient while he is lying in bed.

The sponge is repeatedly dipped in the water and may be left on the patient for several minutes at a time. In irrigation, a stream of water is applied to a body cavity by a syringe or a rubber bulb.

History of Hydrotherapy

Long before the therapeutic value of water was recognized, water springing from the ground, especially hot, bubbly, or colored water, was thought to be of divine nature. In many early civilizations, water was used as a means of religious purification, and the ancient Greeks and Romans used bathing as a means of treating certain illnesses. Water from mineral springs was especially valued for its medicinal effects.

The use of water in treating diseases declined greatly during medieval times, but it was revived in the late Middle Ages, as was spa therapy. The use of cold water in hydrotherapy became popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, and many institutes of hydropathy (as hydrotherapy was then called) were established in Europe and the United States during that time. The scientific basis for the beneficial effects of hydrotherapy had been discovered by the beginning of the 20th century, and today hydrotherapy plays an important role in the treatment and rehabilitation of many patients .

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