What Is Water Therapy?

Hydrotherapy, or water therapy, is the application of water to initiate cure. All three forms of water (liquid, steam, ice) can be used therapeutically. Advantages to hydrotherapy are:

  • It is almost always available.
  • It is easy to learn and perform.
  • It is painless and has no ill side effects.
  • It is inexpensive and can be done at home.

The goals of hydrotherapy are to improve the circulation and quality of blood. This is important because blood delivers nutrients to and removes wastes from tissues and organs. If circulation is poor or slow, healing nutrients cannot be delivered and toxins cannot be removed, which causes degeneration of the tissues and organs. By improving the quality of blood, more nutrients are available for cells to use and toxins are managed more efficiently. General therapeutic uses of hydrotherapy include:

  • Pain and swelling of injuries
  • Fever
  • Elimination of toxins
  • Antispasmodic
  • Constipation
  • Improve immune function

Alternating hot and cold (contrast hydrotherapy) is a common hydrotherapy treatment. The hot application expands blood vessels, filling them with blood, and the cold application constricts the blood vessels, forcing the blood to move on to other parts of the body. Hot and cold can be applied to any part of the body that is inflamed, congested, or injured. Treatment normally consists of applying a hot cloth for 3 minutes then a cold cloth for 30 seconds, alternating 3 times in a row. The treatment can be done several times a day.

The amount of time the hot and cold is applied may vary (e.g., 5 minutes hot, 1 minute cold) as long as the cold application is of shorter duration than the hot. It is also important to end the treatment with the cold application. The hot application should be pleasantly hot.

Caution: Do not apply water that is hot enough to burn. People have different tolerance levels for hot water on different parts of their body. Tolerance levels can change from treatment to treatment, depending on emotional state, degree of injury or illness, and body temperature.

Water works on the body reflexively. This means that when water is applied to one part of the body, other parts of the body are also stimulated by an arterial (blood vessel) reflex or spinal cord reflex. Hydrotherapy takes advantage of this reflexive action. For example, if the left foot is fractured and in a cast, an alternating hot and cold treatment can be performed on the right foot. Because of the reflexive action, the left foot obtains the benefits of the hydrotherapy treatment even though it was done on the right foot. This principle is also used when a hot and cold treatment is applied to the feet to treat the throat or sinuses.

Hydrotherapy treatments include the following:

Baths & Showers

Baths and showers can be healthy and healing. A hot bath or shower can encourage relaxation, reduce stress, and flush out toxins. Adding essential oils or herbs to the bath can enhance the therapeutic benefits. Cold baths and showers can be energizing and stimulating. A rinse of cold water after a hot shower can invigorate, boost the immune system, and improve blood flow.

Hot Foot Bath

A hot foot bath is the immersion of both feet and ankles in hot water for 10 – 30 minutes. It is an excellent way to draw blood from inflamed or congested areas of the body. Indications for use are foot and leg cramps, sore throat, cold, flu, nausea, insomnia, and chest or pelvic congestion.

For more information, please go to complete hot foot bath procedure.

Heating Compress

The heating compress is an application of a cold compress to an area that is initially cooled by the water and then warmed by the influx of blood to the area. It is an effective therapy for sore throat, cold, flu, and sinus congestion when it is administered to the throat or feet. When the feet are treated, it is also known as warming socks or wet socks treatment.

For more information, please go to complete heating compress (warming socks) procedure.

Contraindications for Heating Compress

  • Skin conditions irritated by moisture
  • Weak persons with low vital force

Sitz Bath

A sitz bath is taken in just enough water to cover the buttocks, upper thighs, and lower abdomen. It is more labor intensive than other hydrotherapy treatments but it powerfully affects the pelvic and abdominal organs.

For more information, please go to complete sitz bath procedure.

Contraindications for Sitz Bath

  • Peripheral vascular disease (arteriosclerosis, deep vein thrombosis, Buerger's disease)
  • Diabetes
  • Loss of peripheral sensation
  • Unconsciousness

Castor Oil Pack

Castor oil has been used therapeutically for hundreds of years, both internally and externally. Castor oil applied topically has many beneficial effects and can be used for almost any malady. The castor oil pack is a simple procedure, yet it can produce wonderful results. Physiological effects of the castor oil pack include, but are not limited to: stimulating the liver, increasing eliminations, relieving pain, increasing lymphatic circulation, improving gastrointestinal function, increasing relaxation, and reducing inflammation.

For more information, please go to complete castor oil pack procedure.

Constitutional Hydrotherapy

The constitutional hydro is a series of hot and cold towels applied to the chest and back. This treatment is more involved than other hydrotherapy treatments but is very effective for almost every condition. Naturopathic physicians use this method for promoting overall health and immune system function.

For more information, please go to complete constitutional hydrotherapy procedure.

Indications for Constitutional Hydrotherapy

  • Immune enhancement
  • Digestive problems
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Cold and flu
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Cancer
  • Varicose veins
  • Hypertension
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Psoriasis

Contraindications for Constitutional Hydrotherapy

  • Acute bladder infection
  • Acute asthma
  • Oral temperature less than 97º F


The poultice is the external application of herbs to treat wounds, infections, and muscular, joint, skin, or glandular conditions.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 10 Jun 1998

Last Modified: 22 Jan 2015