Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hydro Healing: The Therapeutic Powers of Water

By Shanon Emerson

All of us, at one time or another, feel the pain, both mental and physical. Mental pain—stress, anxiety, uncertainty, existential dread (we’ve all been there)—can be difficult to tackle, especially during tough times, which makes it even more important to treat the physical pains that can make everything seem that much worse. For the pain in your body (and in some cases the mental pains caused by stress), there could be a simple solution: water. More precisely, hydrotherapy.

Hydrotherapy is the use of water to treat disease. Some hydrotherapy treatments use hot water alone, some use cold water alone, and others alternate between the two. Most of us are familiar with the hot water and steam versions of hydrotherapy: hot tub, steam room and sauna. Besides the ice pack, the medicinal uses of cold water may be less familiar: cold plunge, cold foot bath and the cold shower.

Hydrotherapy is primarily used to bring relief from muscular pain and to stimulate circulation. Enhanced circulation can strengthen the immune system, reduce inflammation, heal injured tissue and improve well-being (i.e., alleviate existential dread).

If you are asking yourself right now: since when did water become medicine? The answer is: a long time ago. The ancient Greeks and Romans took therapeutic baths; the Romans even had communal public baths so all citizens could enjoy the benefits. The Turkish bath was a staple cleansing and social ritual of the Ottoman Empire and remains an important institution in the Middle East today.

Hydrotherapy’s basic operating principle is simple: it plays on the body’s natural reactions to hot and cold stimuli. It uses these reactions to excite or soothe skin, muscles, nerves and internal organs in various ways.

Heat is good for general relaxation and for soothing sore and stiff muscles. Immersing your body in the heat from a hot tub, steam room or sauna increases your body’s overall circulation and helps get rid of toxins.

Cold water and ice packs are most often used to reduce the pain and swelling that accompany acute injuries, such as a freshly sprained ankle. An ice pack lowers the temperature of your skin and reduces inflammation caused by the rush of blood and fluid to a recently injured area.

One of the best treatments for injuries that are more chronic is to alternate between hot and cold. Applying heat causes blood vessels to expand or dilate, which brings in nutrients and oxygen along with the increased blood flow. Switching to cold water or ice causes the blood vessels to contract and carry blood, waste and toxins back to the organs that filter or dispose of waste. The proper way to do this is to begin with three to four minutes of heat followed by 30 to 60 seconds of cold. Repeat this cycle three to five times. Make sure to end with cold so the bad stuff is flushed from the affected area.

The hot-cold cycle can also be done as a full-body treatment by taking a quick cold shower right after a hot bath or by alternating hot and cold in a shower. Try three minutes of hot followed by 30 seconds of cold. After three rounds of that you might just feel like a million bucks. If the idea of 90 seconds of cold water raining down on you doesn’t sound appealing, you can work yourself up to it slowly by trying just 30 seconds of cold at the end of a hot shower.

According to Dr. Suzanne Scopes of Circle Healthcare Clinic in Portland, some of her clients swear by the use of warming socks to treat symptoms associated with upper respiratory infections. The first step in this treatment is to warm your feet first by soaking them in warm water. While your feet are still warm, take a pair of cotton socks and saturate them with cold water. Wring them out before putting them on your feet. Then take a pair of dry, wool socks and put them over the wet ones and get in bed. When you wake up the socks will be dry. “Your body heats them up quickly, and the flushing of blood and lymph from the surface of the skin back in seems to stimulate the immune system,” says Dr. Scopes.

If the at-home hydrotherapy spa isn’t your style, Portland has a few places where you can experience the benefits of hydrotherapy and even add in a therapeutic massage to compound your efforts. At Common Ground Wellness Center (236-6850, in NE Portland you can use their hot tub and sauna for as little as $7 for a half hour and $16 for two hours. Löyly (238-1065, in SE has a sauna and a steam room with hourly rates ranging from $15 an hour to $20 for two hours. Both places have men-only, women-only and co-ed days and times. Check out their websites for details and for a complete list of services.

Now get out there and get your hydrotherapy on. Of course, if you have any health problems be sure to consult your physician first to determine if these treatments are safe for you.

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