Other common name(s): water therapy, balneotherapy, hydrothermal therapy
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Hydrotherapy is the use of water as a medical treatment. The water can be in the form of water vapor, steam, liquid, or ice, and can be either taken internally or used externally.
Hydrotherapy has been proven helpful in many ways. It is used as a means of physical therapy, both to help a person relax and to relieve minor aches and pains. However, there is no evidence that any form of hydrotherapy can prevent or treat cancer.
How is it promoted for use?
There are many medically accepted uses of hydrotherapy. Each involves water in the form of ice, liquid, or steam. Some of the more common examples of hydrotherapy include using water to clean wounds, use of warm moist compresses, ice packs, whirlpool or steam baths, and drinking water in order to prevent or reduce dehydration.
Warm compresses (heat packs) expand blood vessels, which can temporarily increase circulation, help to relax muscles, and reduce pain. Warm water in the form of a bath, massaging water jets, or hot tub also provides relaxation and stress relief. The water vapor produced by a humidifier can reduce the discomfort of minor sore throats and colds. Warm water vapor from a sauna, hot shower, or "sweat lodge" can warm and moisten the nose and breathing passages.
Hydrotherapy in the form of ice packs is used to reduce inflammation and swelling. The coldness constricts blood vessels and reduces circulation to the area, which helps to decrease swelling. The use of water for heating and cooling the body is also called hydrothermal therapy.
Dehydration, which can be a serious medical problem, is treated by giving water or liquids, either by mouth or intravenously.
Hydrotherapy is also used in physical rehabilitation and exercise. When performed in water, exercises can cause less strain on the bones and joints. The water also offers resistance to movement, which helps build muscle strength.
Some claim that warm water baths or cleansing baths boost the immune system, invigorate the digestion, calm the lungs, and stimulate the mind. Streams of warm water directed at different parts of the body are claimed to help headaches, nervous disorders, paralysis, and multiple sclerosis, as well as liver, lung, and gallbladder disease.
Some proponents claim one form of hydrotherapy, which involves frequent enemas, cleanses the bowels and helps cure cancer (see our document, Colon Therapy).
What does it involve?
In most types of hydrotherapy, water is either directly applied to the desired area (an ice pack or a warm damp towel) or the body is partly immersed in water (a hot tub or bath). It can be rubbing the skin with a cold wet towel, or sitting in a steam bath. Massage, yoga, and other exercise can be done in the water. Underwater births can also be considered a form of hydrotherapy.
Internal means of hydrotherapy can include drinking a certain amount of water daily, drinking mineral water or "enriched" water, or getting an intravenous (IV) infusion. Some involve flushing out the nose, vagina, or colon (see section above).
In some alternative remedies, a stream of warm water is directed over a part of the body, such as the foot, back toward the heart. Or a person may be wrapped in a cold wet sheet and covered with blankets while the sheet dries. Other types of hydrotherapy may involve bathing or soaking in water that contains minerals, mud, herbs, aromatherapy oils, Epsom salts, Dead Sea salts, or other materials.
What is the history behind it?
Hydrotherapy has been used throughout history by many diverse cultures. Even the Old Testament mentions the healing powers of mineral waters. By the time of the ancient Greeks, the use of water as a healing agent was well-established. The early Roman and Turkish baths are still popular tourist attractions today.
The modern use of hydrotherapy is linked to Vincent Preissnitz, who established the "Graefenberg cure" in the 1800s for treating almost every ailment. This treatment involved the use of water in every conceivable way, often alternating between hot and cold water.
Traditional Native American healing uses sweat lodges as a type of remedy. Sweating is thought to be a form of cleansing that purges poisons from the body. This belief is similar to the Scandinavians' use of saunas. Several of the springs first used by Native Americans have been converted into resorts and remain popular today. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's use of one such spring brought worldwide attention to the use of hydrotherapy.
What is the evidence?
Water has long been known to be essential to human life. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Science reports that Adequate Intake (AI) of water is around 3.7 liters per day for adult men (over 18 years), and about 2.7 liters for adult women. For pregnant women, daily intake is about 3 liters, and 3.8 for nursing women. A liter is a little more than a quart, so for men, this translates to nearly 4 quarts a day. But this amount of water includes all the liquid in your food and drinks, not just plain water intake. For example, a person eating fresh fruits generally will not need to drink as much as a person eating dried fruits, because fresh fruits have a high percentage of water.
In conditions of high heat, prolonged exercise, and a lot of sweating, even more liquid is needed. There are also medical conditions in which a person may need more fluid to help prevent health problems such as kidney stones or constipation. There are few situations in which a person may need to take in smaller amounts of fluid, such as kidney failure or heart failure.
Aside from basic hydration, hydrotherapy is an accepted way to treat symptoms for many conditions, although many forms of it have not been studied carefully. There are many types of hydrotherapy and all sorts of possible uses. Each type of hydrotherapy requires its own studies.
Some types of hydrotherapy are actually well-proven conventional therapies, such as ice packs for slight sprains and hot compresses for sore muscles. Warm compresses or warm water soaks are also sometimes used in mainstream medicine to help treat local skin conditions, such as infection (see our document, Heat Therapy). Cold is known to reduce the blood flow to the part of the body where it is applied, while heat does the opposite. Since water transmits cold and heat so well, it can be used to change the skin temperature quickly to help reduce or increase blood flow where it is applied.
Certain types of hydrotherapy can be useful for patients with severe burns, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal cord injuries, and bone injuries. An analysis of studies done on hydrotherapy for lower back pain suggested that it might be helpful, although further studies are needed.
Physical therapy is a mainstream treatment that is sometimes given in a pool, where the water can help to support the person's body weight and reduce impact on joints.
Hydrotherapy has not been proven to work in slowing the growth or spread of cancer. Available scientific evidence does not support claims that alternative uses of hydrotherapy, such as cold body wraps or colon therapy, can cure cancer or any other disease.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Most forms of hydrotherapy are considered safe. However, colon therapy can cause perforation of the colon, which can lead to death. People who are frail, elderly, or very young may become dehydrated or develop serious blood chemistry imbalances in very warm water or saunas. People with diabetes, numbness, or poor sensation may be at higher risk of scalding or burns from hot soaks or compresses. Pregnant women and people with heart or lung problems may have trouble with very hot or cold water.
Those with poor circulation or problems, such as Reynaud's disease or frostbite, may find them worsened by cold water, ice, and cold wraps. Excessive heat or cold applied directly to the skin for long periods of time may cause pain, drying, and tissue damage.
Bacterial infection due to improperly cleaned whirlpools and hot tubs has also been reported. Fungal skin infection has resulted from mud baths. Essential oils and other additives can irritate skin.
Drinking very large amounts of water over short periods of time can lead to serious mineral imbalances in the blood, and death from water intoxication.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Burns SB, Burns JL. Hydrotherapy. J Altern Complement Med. 1997;3:105-107.
Cassileth B. The Alternative Medicine Handbook: The Complete Reference Guide to Alternative and Complementary Therapies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton; 1998.
Harmer AR, Naylor JM, Crosbie J, Russell T. Land-based versus water-based rehabilitation following total knee replacement: a randomized, single-blind trial. Arthritis Rheum. 2009 Feb 15;61(2):184-191.
Hydrotherapy, balneotherapy. Aetna InteliHealth Web site. Accessed at www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/8513/34968/362192.html on January 14, 2011.
National Academies of Science Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Intakes for Individuals, Macronutrients. Accessed at http://iom.edu/en/Global/News%20Announcements/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/DRISummaryListing2.ashx on January 18, 2011.
Pittler MH, Karagülle MZ, Karagülle M, Ernst E. Spa therapy and balneotherapy for treating low back pain: meta-analysis of randomized trials. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2006;45:880-884.
Ruiz de Casas A, Herrera A, Suárez AI, Camacho FM. Skin infection with Fusarium in an immunocompetent patient [in Spanish]. Actas Dermosifiliogr. 2006;97:278-280.
Tejirian T, Abbas MA. Sitz bath: where is the evidence? Scientific basis of a common practice. Dis Colon Rectum. 2005;48:2336-2340.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation
Last Revised: 03/07/2011