Hydrotherapy 101: What You Didn’t Know About Water

Sebastian Kneipp formalized water treatment therapy in the 19th century. You’ve probably heard of its benefits. Here’s what you need to know.

Hydrotherapy—the use of water for healing or medicinal benefit—is common practice in the wellness community. Who hasn’t tingled in a hot tub after a plunge in icy water, iced a sore limb, relaxed in a steam room, or soaked in the goodness of a mineral pool?

The practice dates back thousands of years. Ancient Greeks indulged in bathing rituals of submerging in heated water infused with branches of juniper, mint and other botanicals known to help cleanse and strengthen the body and mind. Romans believed the appropriate bathing order was to first visit the temperate tepidarium to relax muscles and joints and aid digestion, circulation and appetite. Next, the steaming waters of the caldarium opened capillaries and caused sweat. Finally, a brief visit to the frigidarium, or cold water pool, closed pores and protected the bather from chills.

These practices were lost in the Middle Ages, but revived in the 18th and 19th centuries in Austria and Germany. Sebastian Kneipp was born in 1821 and was studying to be a priest when he fell ill with tuberculosis. Kneipp dug up old theories of the healing benefits of water, and though he felt they were extreme, revised the practices for himself and tested them with cold dips in the Danube River, followed by sprinting. His condition improved, and Kneipp, by then Father Sebastian Kneipp, continued to learn and use his knowledge to help others.

Kneipp went on to establish five pillars of health that form the basis of modern Naturopathy: water, plants, nutrition, exercise and balance. Water—both hot and cold—is the core element of the pillars, with over 120 water cures to help boost the immune system, prevent disease and enhance the skin. Many can be easily and inexpensively employed at home.

The Legacy of Sebastian Kneipp

The well-known European bath brand, Kneipp, was founded by Sebastian Kneipp. The brand uses thermal spring salt and botanicals to deliver these ancient remedies to those seeking wellness today. The salt is harvested from Europe’s only remaining salt pan, the Saline Luisenhall in central Germany. The brine (estimated to have been a sea 250 million years ago) is extracted from 1,500 feet below Earth’s surface using a 150-year-old method. This salt is high in trace elements, has naturally occurring minerals, and is free from chemical additives and modern environmental influences. Kneipp Mineral Bath Salts are hand-processed and formulated to gently cleanse and soften the skin, as well as melt away stress to help you relax and unwind.

Benefits of Hydrotherapy

For effective post-workout hydrotherapy, an ice or warm bath can help the body recover faster naturally. An ice bath can help regenerate muscles and decrease inflammation. Studies also show warm baths can have similar benefits; a higher temperature can stimulate metabolism while relaxing muscles, helping to repair any soreness-causing damage more quickly. Each workout and athlete is different, so find the immersion that best suits your needs.

Try a 15–20 minute warm bath (98–100 degrees, about room temperature) with a plant oil known to reduce pain and swelling, like Arnica Montana or Juniper. These plants are known to calm and soothe joints and muscles, and are used to treat the body after working out. Adding some salts to the mix makes the experience that much enjoyable—by giving you a little detox too.

To ease restlessness and restore calm balance, lavender salts work in two ways. First, essential oil-infused salts turn any space into an aromatherapy room. Then the salts melt away in water to deliver silky soft skin in under half an hour. Get the same skin-softening benefits and support restful sleep with Dream Away, which employs powerful valerian to improve sleep quality and hops to melt away stress. Salts detoxify and sooth the body.

Hydrotherapy Beyond the Bathtub

Another effective treatment, affusion, can relieve headaches and tighten the sensitive skin of the face. It’s especially useful against headaches from long periods of concentration or reading. Place a towel around your neck and lean over a sink or basin. Using a hose attachment with a gentle flow rate of cold water, aim the water at the right temple. Move the stream across the forehead to the left temple and back, then up and down both sides of the face, finishing with circles around the face. To improve facial circulation and improve skin tone and coloration, perform the affusion twice a day for several weeks. It’s easy, quick, refreshing and costs nothing.

Need to perk up instead of relax? Try a hydrotherapy method called the Kneipp Espresso (aka a “cold arm bath”). Fill a basin with cold water (54–65 degrees) and immerse arms up to the middle of the upper arm. Keep them submerged just 30–40 seconds while breathing deeply. In addition to refreshing mild exhaustion, this technique strengthens immune defenses, promotes circulation, stimulates metabolism and promotes blood flow to the heart.

Water treading is another popular hydrotherapy option that can stimulate metabolism, help with migraines and varicose veins, and promote sleep. Just partially fill a bathtub with very cold water and slowly walk in place, taking each leg completely out of the water with each step. Stop when the cold becomes unpleasant, brush off the water with your hands, put on socks, and continue walking (outside or around the house) for a cozy warm feeling.

Consult with a doctor before utilizing hydrotherapy techniques if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, low blood pressure, or any other health condition. Bathing in over-heated water can severely exacerbate these health conditions.

Standing the Test of Time

For thousands of years, hydrotherapy and saltwater bathing have been touted for their detoxifying health benefits. Immersion in warm saltwater promotes circulation and decreases inflammation. Soaking can sooth skin disorders and may help alleviate inflammatory rheumatism and some gynecological and nervous system disorders. Inhaling steam from a salt bath may be especially effective in sinus issues, including sinusitis and trachea-bronchitis.

“Water, bestowed by the creator of man, and plants selected from the plant kingdom form the essential elements needed to cure diseases and make the body healthy.” These are the words of Father Sebastian Kneipp more than a century ago, and even today his water cures stand ready to alleviate many of life’s daily aches and pains.

So draw a bath and indulge in a unique combination of hydrotherapy and aromatherapy; of history, wellness and you.