Hydrotherapy (Part 1 of 4): History and Overview


Water. It is powerful enough to erode rock and create canyons, yet gentle enough to bathe an infant, and without it life on this planet would not exist.  The use of water in medicine is termed hydrotherapy, and its use in treatments of diseases and ailments has been documented in written texts over 300 years.  In its various forms, hydrotherapy has been used the heal virtually everything, from fractures to smallpox and everything in between.

Modern Western hydrotherapy can trace its origins to Germany, considered the birthplace of Naturopathic Medicine and the Nature Cure movement in the United States. In 1892, Benedict Lust, the father of Naturopathic Medicine, contracted tuberculosis and traveled home to Germany to die. While there he met Father Sebastian Kneipp who, through the use of hydrotherapy, healed him. Lust returned to the United States in 1896 determined to bring Father Kneipp’s water cure to the American people.

Currently, this often overlooked therapy is being studied in a variety of areas.  According to Mooventhan and Nivethitha (2014),

“hydrotherapy was widely used to improve immunity, and for the management of chronic pain, congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, ankylosing spondilitis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia syndrome, anorectal disorders, fatigue, anxiety, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, etc. It produces different effects on various systems of the body depending on the temperature of water”.  

Regulation of temperature is essential for the proper functioning physiology of all our organ systems. In order for the conditions in the body to be stabilized under ever changing environmental conditions there is a regulatory system working to maintain the inner balance. This is termed thermal homeostasis and is maintained by heat being produced and heat being released. It is possible to influence this homeostasis with therapeutically targeted disruptions also termed stimulus. A stimulus gives rise to a reaction and results in regulation. Short term applications of water have an immediate effect on the local tissue (reaction), but serial applications will stimulate the regulatory mechanism and have long-term effects. The techniques to apply these thermal stimuli include wraps, compresses, rinses, baths, and steams, just to name a few.

Effects of thermal stimuli:

  • Cold
    • Increase of systolic and diastolic blood pressure
    • Decrease of the heart rate
    • Toning of arteries and veins (vasoconstriction)
    • Vegetative shift (balancing parasympathetic and sympathetic tone)
    • Locally anti-inflammatory
    • Locally analgesic
  • Warm and Hot
    • Increased heart rate
    • Increased circulation of skin
    • Improved general circulation (vasodilation)
    • Intensified metabolism
    • Analgesia
    • Relaxation of muscles
    • Loosening of connective tissues
    • Enhanced vagal tone
    • Increase in overall relaxation

Just as a skillful artist can use one brush in a variety of ways and create different effects, so too can we employ the use of water applications to achieve different goals. Ultimately the therapies can be cost effective and accessible to all patients.  Many treatments can be done at home with the use of a simple resource: water.  


Mooventhan, A., & Nivethitha, L. (2014). Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body. North American Journal of Medical Sciences6(5), 199–209. http://doi.org/10.4103/1947-2714.132935