Hydrotherapy is defined as the application of water to the body, either to maintain health or treat disease.
Everyone knows to ice a sprained ankle or to use heat to relax a tense muscle. These are both therapeutic uses of water (especially if using a hot tub for the tense muscle). Water is such a great tool for applying heat and cold to the body because it absorbs energy well, holds it well, and transfers it to the tissues it touches.
Hot water increases vasodilation (the relaxing and opening of blood vessels). This brings nutrient rich blood to the area. It increases tissue metabolism which speeds up the body’s ability to grab nutrients, flush wastes, and heal from injury. Both of these two functions results in increase immune response. The blood vessels become more porous and allow white blood cells (WBCs) to leave the blood circulation and make their way to areas of the body that need their help.
Cold water causes vasoconstriction (the tightening and narrowing of blood vessels). This shunts blood away from an area and “tones” the tissues. The tightened blood vessels become less porous, preventing WBCs from moving into the tissue space. This is most helpful when trying to reduce allergic reactions (like hives) or decrease swelling (like a sprained ankle). There is also a numbing effect caused by slowed nerve impulses which decreases pain sensation.
What I like best about hot and cold therapy is that you can combine them. The increased blood flow from hot applications combined with the decreased blood flow from cold applications results in a pumping mechanism that circulates blood more efficiently through an area. This can be a small area (like an ankle) or the whole body (done with saunas and cold plunges).
As for all therapies, there are some situations that hot and cold water is not appropriate. People with desensitized skin (various neuropathies including diabetes) can cause damage if they can’t feel how hot or cold the temperature is. Bleeding wounds should not have hot put on them (it just increases the bleeding). Deep wounds should be seen by a doctor. Cold applications can exacerbate asthma and have been known to provoke asthma attacks in susceptible people. Pregnant women should not do full body hot and cold unless under the advice of a doctor – the baby is very sensitive to the body temperature changes of the mother. People with cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure should speak with their doctor before implementing therapies with extremes in temperatures.
OK, that’s enough for the warnings. Be safe, and check with your doctor if you’re unsure. Nothing here is meant to be used in place of a proper visit to your health care provider and I am not diagnosing or treating any particular condition.
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