Hydrotherapy - All health - Medical Reference Library and Symptom Finder
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Alternative Names 
water therapy

Hydrotherapy is the use of water to treat disease or illness. Water has been used to treat disease since ancient times. Hydrotherapy includes whirlpools, sitz baths, sauna and steam baths, douches, and other treatments.

Who is a candidate for the procedure? 
Many conditions are treated, at least in part, with hydrotherapy. The condition or disease determines the type of therapy used. Hydrotherapy has been used for wound care, to increase blood flow and improve circulation, for relaxation, and to reduce anxiety.

How is the procedure performed? 
A whirlpool may be used as part of the treatment for certain types of wounds. It can help reduce inflammation by increasing blood flow to the wound. Other benefits include cleansing of the wound and relieving pain. Typical treatment includes placing the person in a warm whirlpool once or twice a day for 20 minutes. The wound is rinsed with clean water afterward.

The steam baths and saunas commonly found in spas or gyms are usually not used medically. However, they are often used to make people feel better or for treating muscle strains. Most experts advise people not to spend more than 15 to 20 minutes in either a steam bath or sauna. Neither of these advised for pregnant women or people with infections, lung or heart diseases, or circulation or blood vessel problems.

Douches describe gentle running water that is poured over an area of the body. Typical sites are knee, ankle and feet. The water is usually kept at body temperature or lower. This procedure may relieve tension and pain. It can also stimulate blood flow. Most women are also familiar with vaginal douches that are used for personal hygiene.

An immersion bath or sitz bath is used to relieve back pain, sore muscles and body aches due to flu or colds. The bath also promotes relaxation and helps to relieve mild anxiety. The bath is kept at body temperature or a little warmer. People with heart problems, circulation problems, numbness, haemorrhoids, or varicose veins should check with their doctor before using this therapy. Cool baths are sometimes used for sprains, to relieve itchy rashes, or for swelling.

Other types of water therapy are also used in some settings.

What happens right after the procedure? 
After therapy, people can usually return to normal activities or their hospital room if in the hospital. Many people who use whirlpools or warm sitz baths report a feeling of relaxation and calm. People who use cool baths for relief from itching, heat, or swelling often report a reduction in symptoms.

What happens later at home? 
Most treatment is done at home. Wound care with a whirlpool is usually done under medical care in a hospital. After the whirlpool, the wound is cleaned and dressed.

What are the potential complications after the procedure? 
There are very few complications when this therapy is used correctly in the right people. People may get too hot or too cool. Use of a sauna or steam bath for too long can cause dehydration or dangerously high body temperatures. If the water used for wound care is not clean, a new or worsening infection may occur.

Author: Terry Mason, MPH
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 16/10/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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