Hydrotherapy refers to the therapeutic use of water to treat diseases or to promote and improve health. Hydrotherapy is based on the theory that water has a number of healing properties. Among these properties include its ability to store and carry energy, ability to dissolve other substances, its benign nature and inherent calming effects, and its easy availability at a variety of temperatures. As such, there are a variety of uses for hydrotherapy, most of which are medically accepted and involve the use of water in the form of ice, liquid, or steam. Common examples of hydrotherapy include warm compresses, ice packs, whirlpool baths, or consumption in order to prevent dehydration.
Hydrotherapy has been used to treat a variety of illnesses, including acne, arthritis, the common cold, depression, headaches, digestive problems, joint and muscle problems, neurological problems, and sleep disorders, as well as to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Warm compresses help to expand blood vessels and promote circulation, which can aid with relaxation and pain reduction. The same effects can also be obtained through the use of warm baths, water massage, and whirlpool baths. Similarly, warm steam from saunas and showers can moisten mucous membranes and aid in decongestion of nasal passages. Hydrotherapy using ice packs has the reverse effect. It reduces inflammation and swelling by causing blood vessels to constrict and reducing blood flow to the treated area.
Hydrotherapy is generally considered safe although some people may respond in different ways, based on the length and intensity of particular treatments. Individuals with nerve damage, such as those with diabetic complications or compromised sensations, may be at risk for scalding from hot baths or compresses. Furthermore, individuals with circulation problem, including people with Raynaud’s disease, may find their symptoms exacerbated by extreme temperatures. Those who utilize whirlpools, hot tubs, and mud baths are at an increased risk for acquiring fungal or bacterial infections.
Hydrotherapy and Fibromyalgia
Hydrotherapy is commonly used by fibromyalgia patients, with as many as 75% of patients trying it at one point or another (Langhorst et al., 2009). Despite its widespread use, scientific studies investigating hydrotherapy and fibromyalgia are lacking.
A particular type of hydrotherapy, known as balneotherapy, involves the use of mineral baths to treat disease. Balneotherapy has shown promise for treating fibromyalgia symptoms (Terhorst et al., 2011). It has been demonstrated to help improve pain intensity, depression, and reduce tender point counts (Ozkurt et al., 2011) when administered both as a single therapy and in conjunction with physical therapy (Kesiktas et al., 2011). Balneotherapy has also been demonstrated to decrease systemic inflammation among fibromyalgia patients (Ardic et al., 2007). For a more detailed review, please refer to our article on the use of balneotherapy for fibromyalgia.
In addition to balneotherapy, mud baths and galvanotherapy (bathing in electrically charged water) have also been investigated as treatment for fibromyalgia related pain, sleep disturbances, fatigue, depression, and overall quality of life. Some studies reported improvements in outcomes measures for those treated with either galvanotherapy and amitriptyline therapy combined (Eksioglu et al., 2007), or mud bath (Fioravanti et al., 2007); however, a subsequent re-analysis of these data by outside researchers demonstrated no evidence of efficacy (Langhorst et al., 2009). One other small study of 25 patients compared the use of galvanotherapy to relaxation therapy in fibromyalgia patients. Other than a brief decrease in pain intensity in the morning hours, no significant effects of either method were detected in the study (Gunther et al., 1994).