Hydrotherapy for Physical Injury
Most people will experience a physical injury at some point in their life. Some injuries heal quickly, while others are slow to heal leaving lingering chronic pain. Physical therapy can be useful in rebuilding strength after an injury. However, for pain management, patients may want to try an alternative to prescription drugs that all too often become addictive.
Water has long been valued for its healing properties, especially in ancient cultures found in China and Japan. Luxurious baths were the center of Roman and Turkish civilizations. Today, many visit spas to experience various water treatments. Hydrotherapy, in its many forms, provides safe, gentle, soothing relief from pain, and can even help build strength.
Using Hydrotherapy to Heal a Physical Injury
Hydrotherapy uses water to heal the body. Hydrotherapy is most commonly used to treat musculoskeletal problems such as muscle strains or tears, repetitive stress injury (RSI), spinal cord injuries, and bone injuries. It can also be beneficial for non-injury problems such as cystic fibrosis, eczema, bursitis, rheumatoid arthritis, stress, prostatitis, burns, sore throat, cold, stroke, or paralysis.
Water temperature is one aspect of hydrotherapy that controls inflammation and circulation. Exposing a new injury to cold water can reduce swelling. Cold water also stimulates the body and is invigorating. For general aches and pains, such as tense muscles or stiff joints, warm water relaxes muscles and encourages blood circulation. Warm water assists with removing waste from body tissues. The best water temperature is determined by the nature of the injury. For example, one should not apply warm or hot water when there is still swelling.
Motion is another aspect of hydrotherapy that can involve one’s passive or active participation. For example, resting in a Jacuzzi or whirlpool requires no action from the patient. However, the motion of the water jets provides a therapeutic massage. Conversely, water aerobics requires active participation from the patient. The buoyancy properties of water prevent a patient from performing any high-impact moves that could be harmful or painful. Exercising in water is effective in building strength because water provides resistance, requiring greater effort. For example, walking in the water is more difficult than walking on land.
Types of Hydrotherapy
There are several types of hydrotherapy treatments that provide a variety of benefits.
Saunas and Stream Baths
The heat from saunas and steam baths increases blood flow and is effective in treating pain resulting from injury. There are additional benefits as well. Saunas promote elimination of toxins through the skin, and steam baths can provide relief to those suffering from respiratory problems.
The heat from a whirlpool relaxes tense, aching muscles. Placing an aching muscle in front of one of the water jets massages the muscle. The intensity of the massage is determined by how close the muscle is to the water jet. Additionally, pulsating jets are effective in improving circulation. Many find that they are more flexible during a whirlpool treatment because the body is completely relaxed, and muscles feel looser. Therefore, some physical therapists move and manipulate the body while the patient is in the whirlpool.
Like whirlpools, a hot bath can relax and soothe aching muscles. A therapeutic bath is even more effective with the addition of essential oils and minerals, which can be purchased at most health food stores. For sore muscles, rosemary and eucalyptus are soothing, and peppermint has natural anti-inflammatory properties. The patient can choose from a variety of oils and mineral salts, or experiment with recipes at home. A warm bath has the added benefit of being accessible from home for frequent treatments. Cold baths can be invigorating, but are an option only for those who are not sensitive to cooler temperatures.
Foot baths and Compresses
Those who do not have access to a bath may want to consider a foot bath, or a compress. Both of these can be prepared with essential oils. For those with foot injuries, a foot bath is effective therapy to help healing. Plastic foot baths are available at most drug stores. A hot or cold compress may be an option for those who do not have time for a bath or whirlpool, and it allows one to be mobile. Simply place the compress directly on the injury.
Many people with old injuries find that arthritis sets in later in life. Those who are lucky enough to live near a hot spring can soak in nature’s healing water. Calcium and sodium bicarbonate, found in hot springs, promote circulation, and lessens the pain of arthritis due to old injuries.
Exercising in Water
When doctors advise strength building as part of the treatment for an injury, exercising in the water is a great option. The resistance from the water works muscles, while providing protection from high impact motion that could aggravate an injury. Most neighborhood pools offer water aerobics or swim classes. Many find swimming stimulating and invigorating. Additional benefits from exercising in the water are improved circulation, and greater flexibility. Best of all, swimming is an activity for every stage of life.
Watsu®: Shiatsu in Water
Watsu®, available at many spas, combines traditional body therapies such as shiatsu massage, stretching exercises, and joint manipulation, while the patient is in warm water. With Shiatsu massage, also known as acupressure, the therapist applies pressure with his hand to targeted areas. Administering this massage while the patient is in warm water supports the spine, loosens muscles, and provides greater range of motion.
Although something as simple as drinking water may not seem like therapy, it should not be overlooked. Drinking 6-8 glasses of water each day provides essential minerals, flushes the body of toxins, and is essential for muscle function.
Is Hydrotherapy Safe?
Hydrotherapy is safe for most people. A doctor can recommend the appropriate hydrotherapy treatment for specific injuries. For serious injuries, hydrotherapy is generally not used alone, but complements other types of treatment. Those with Reynaud’s disease may be sensitive to cold water treatments. Also, it is important to ensure that baths, Jacuzzis, or whirlpools are clean and free from any fungus that could be transmitted to the skin.
The Worldwide Aquatic Bodywork Association provides additional information on Watsu® water therapy and classes.