Types and Health Benefits of Hydrotherapy

Water therapy can provide relief from pain
An instructor leads a water aerobics course as the students lift small dumbbells in a pool.

Water is essential for our everyday life. From drinking it and using it to bathe, water helps us stay healthy and helps treat disease. Hydrotherapy, also known as aquatic therapy or water therapy, is the practice of using water as therapy. There are many ways hydrotherapy can be used — and both hot and cold water offer different benefits.

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Integrative medicine physician Irina Todorov, MD, explains how hydrotherapy works and its benefits.

What is hydrotherapy?

Water has many properties that make it a good form of therapy. Hydrotherapy can treat different diseases and illnesses. It can also be used as a form of relaxation and to support your health.

“Hydrotherapy is using water in different ways to affect the body,” says Dr. Todorov. “It could be through immersion in water — a soaking bath or steam bath.”

Part of the beauty of hydrotherapy is that it can involve any form of water, like ice, liquid or steam. Plus, it can carry heat and energy and dissolve other substances like minerals and salts. 

Types of hydrotherapy

Whether it’s using a cold compress on a sprained ankle or taking part in a group water aerobics class, there are many different forms of hydrotherapy. Here are a few of the most common:

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  • Aquatic exercise. Water aerobics, lap swimming and group exercise classes all fall under aquatic exercise.
  • Aquatic physical therapy. Performed by a licensed physical therapist, this type of therapy includes a specialized program for each person.
  • Warm water baths. Taking a warm water bath can increase blood flow and it can also reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Sitz bath. A good option for those dealing with hemorrhoids, an anal fissure or healing from an episiotomy, sitting in warm water for about 15 minutes can relieve pain.
  • Saunas. In a small room with wood interiors, water is typically poured onto heated stones or used in other ways to create steam. A recent study shows that using a sauna can help relax individuals, improve mental health and sleep.
  • Immersion therapies. A recent study shows that cold water immersion like an ice water bath and contrast water therapy (a series of brief immersions in warm and cold temperatures) can improve the short-term feeling of relaxation in athletes, which can after their performance and well-being.

The benefits of hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy can be used to treat a variety of conditions. Studies show that aquatic exercise is more beneficial and efficient than land exercises for those who have obesity. Using aquatic exercise can help burn more calories with less fatigue.

“Obesity usually comes with joint pain,” says Dr. Todorov. “Aquatic exercises are a good option because there’s no gravity and individuals can do exercise much longer with less joint pain.”

Here are other conditions and illnesses that hydrotherapy can help treat:

Cold versus warm water

Should you use cold water or warm water? You’ve probably used one or the other to treat injuries or ailments. 

“When you have an injury like a sprain, it is recommended to use a cold compress because it causes the arteries to constrict and can decrease pain,” says Dr. Todorov. “But if we want something to heal like chronic back pain, you want a warm immersion because it causes muscle relaxation and can improve healing.”

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Cold water benefits include:

  • Decreases pain.
  • Reduces inflammation.
  • Lessens soreness in muscles.
  • Lowers body temperature.
  • Boosts your immune system.

Warm water benefits include:

  • Decreases pain.
  • Promotes blood flow.
  • Relaxes muscles.
  • Flushes out toxins.
  • Relieves constipation.

Is hydrotherapy right for you?

There’s a lot of reasons to try out a form of hydrotherapy. It can improve your range of motion, help with depression and anxiety and even provide some great social benefits if you’re participating in a group or class.

If you don’t have access to a pool or sauna, even just taking a bath can have its perks, says Dr. Todorov.

“Sitting in a bath with some aromatherapy like chamomile or lavender for relaxation can be a great form of self-care,” she says.

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