Hydrotherapy To Promote Healing and Pain Relief

By Hopewood Health Retreat, Wallacia NSW

Hydrotherapy is a range of specialised water-based treatments designed to stimulate general or local circulation in the blood vessels. This in turn assists an injured or diseased area of the body to heal by allowing more metabolic wastes and other toxins to be removed and more nutrients, etc, to flow into the area.

The treatment is applied in the form of either an immersion bath or hot and cold water compresses. The water itself, while soothing in its effect, does not create the response in the tissues. The response is due to the heat or cold applied to the area.

The general rule is that heat dilates blood vessels, increases blood flow – which supplies more oxygen and nutrients to the area – and relaxes nerves and tissues. In contrast, cold constricts blood vessels, reduces blood flow – which assists in removing venous and lymphatic wastes from the area – and stimulates nerves and tissues.

Acute conditions, such as sprains and strains, require cold applications to reduce swelling and therefore reduce tissue damage. Chronic conditions, such as still joints and aching back, require heat to soothe and relax the area. Hot and cold can often be used alternately to stimulate an area for more rapid recovery. The pattern to be used for alternating treatments is three minutes of hot and one minute of cold, repeated three times altogether. The ‘hot’ water should be no hotter than 40˚C and the cold is cold water from the tap. It is not the extremes of temperature that produces results, but the contrast between the hot and cold.

Hydrotherapy should not be regarded as a primary therapy, but rather as a supplement to other forms of therapy.

Here is a brief description of the more common techniques. 


Hot and cold sitz baths. These produce a flushing effect in the pelvic region, which helps relieve chronic constipation and pelvic pain, such as that associated with lower abdominal problems, menstruation, cystitis or backache. Sit for three minutes in a tub of warm water at approximately 40˚C with the feet in a bowl of cold tap water. Then for one minute, sit in another tub containing cold water with the feet in hot water. Repeat this process three times in total – being sure to finish sitting in the cold tub. Then dry briskly with a towel with an upwards motion towards the heart and dress warmly. During the sitz bath, be warmly clad on upper body and legs.

Hot and cold leg baths. These stimulate circulation in the legs and can help fluid retention, cramps, restless legs, chronic injuries and possibly varicose veins. With varicose veins, be sure to never exceed 40˚C in the hot cycle. A suitable leg bath is a clean garbage bin, two of which are required. The procedure and water temperatures are similar to those for sitz baths, that is, three minutes in very warm water and one minute in cold, repeated twice more. Dry the legs gently with an upwards motion towards the heart, and then go for a brisk 10-minute walk.

Hot and cold foot baths.  Good for circulation in the feet and swollen feet and ankles. For tinea, add a few drops of tea tree oil to the bath. For poor circulation, add a pinch of cayenne pepper or some ginger oil to the water. Place feet in hot water first for three minutes. Wriggle toes and gently twist ankles while the feet are in the water. Place in cold water for one minute and repeat twice more. Dry briskly.

Hot and cold hand bath. These are good for circulation, arthritis and chronic injuries in the hands. As with the above procedures and using a bowl of hot water and a bowl of cold, bathe the hand in each for three minutes and one minute respectively, and repeat the cycle twice more. Dry promptly. While the hands are in the baths, it is a good idea to flex the fingers a little and gently move the hands around.


These are applied as hot and cold compresses in sequence or as cold compresses only, depending on the need. They are also known as ‘compresses’ or ‘packs’.

Hot and cold compresses. These are used with chronic conditions to stimulate circulation for healing and pain relief in parts of the body where baths can’t be used. Hot and cold foments benefit strains, sprains, inflammation of joints and muscle spasms.

Wrap a hot-water bottle in several layers of towel and place on the affected part for three minutes. Then rinse another towel in cold (not icy cold) water, wring gently so that it doesn’t drip, and place on the area for one minute. Repeat the cycle twice more. Take care that the hot phases don’t burn the skin – use more layers of towel if necessary.

Rest for 30 minutes after completing the treatment to allow the circulation to return to normal. The hot pack should be warm and comfortable and you should be able to feel the heat penetrating through the towels. If it is too hot, it will burn the top layer of skin, without providing benefit. With a cold compress, use only cold tap water, not ice, except that in summer the water can be cooled a little with ice. The benefit is derived from the contrast between the hot and cold, not from extreme temperatures.

Cold, wet sheet wrap (or compress).  Apply to sprains, bruises, swollen glands, sore throats, arthritis, inflamed areas and insect bites. A cold compress consists of a cold, moist piece of cotton sheeting, wrung out lightly so as not to drip, and placed over the affected area. It must be completely covered (literally every single square centimetre!) by a piece of woollen material – a strip of an old pullover or an old blanket will do, but it must be wool, not synthetic, to be effective. Use cold tap water, not ice, except that in summer the water can be cooled a little with ice. The wet cotton should become warm after a few minutes. If still cold (because it’s probably too loose), remove the wrap and repeat. The compress can remain in place for 10 to 20 minutes or even overnight.

A cold compress can have such drawing power, that if one is placed on a limb, it is also necessary to place one right around the waist (about 200 – 250 mm wide) in order to prevent the limb compress ‘pulling’ toxins into the limb from the entire system.


Alternating hot and cold foments, or straight hot or cold alone, can be used over various organs to speed up tissue drainage. Again, the ‘hot’ is not above 40˚C and the cold is from the tap. The most commonly treated organs include liver, lungs, kidneys, stomach, the lower abdominal organs, including the reproductive organs (prostate gland, ovaries and uterus) and also the intestinal organs, that is, the colon.

Treatment for Excessive Menstruation. Place a cold compress over the uterus (abdomen). To the legs apply a hot-water bottle and blanket. Cover the entire body with a blanket and be sure to keep warm.

Relief of Nausea. Apply a cold compress to the abdomen for 20 minutes; then remove the compress for 20 minutes. Repeat this cycle just once more, making two compress applications altogether.

Relief of Headaches. Prepare two hot-water bottles and one cold compress. Go to bed, with the bedroom dark and no TV or radio on. Place one hot-water bottle under the back of the knees with a pillow underneath for support. Place the second hot-water bottle behind the back of the neck and shoulders. Apply the cold compress to the forehead and remain in bed like this for at least 30 minutes. You may fall asleep and wake up without a headache. If the headache persists, this treatment can be repeated until it eases. For a severe headache, the use of lavender oil on temples, back of neck and back of head may be helpful, although watch for sensitivity.


These help clear nasal passages and ease respiratory conditions. Pour about a litre (4 cups) of boiling water into a bowl, sit with the head over it, and cover both head and bowl with a towel. Inhale until there is no more steam. Take care not to burn the airways. During inhaling, close off one nostril and breathe in through the other, then out through the mouth. Alternate this periodically.

For conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, sinusitis or chest congestion, a steam inhalation prior to hot and cold fomentations increases the effectiveness of the fomentations.

For an anti-viral and anti-bacterial effect, add 3 drops of eucalyptus oil to the water.

To more effectively help clear sinuses, add a peppermint tea bag to the boiling water.

To more effectively soothe the nasal membranes, add a chamomile tea bag to the water. For severe sinus headaches, use 2 drops eucalyptus oil, 2 drops lavender oil and 1 drop only of peppermint oil.



Some general guidelines for hydrotherapy need to be kept in mind:

  • Sit or rest comfortably during the procedure, using pillows or towels for support of the lower back if necessary;
  • Watch for any reactions or distress that may indicate sensitivity to heat or cold;
  • Cease the treatment if pain increases;
  • Do only one hydrotherapy treatment at a time. If using more than one treatment, allow at least two hours between treatments;
  • Limit treatments to two per day, because more than this could drain vitality.
  • You must rest for 30 minutes on completion of a hydrotherapy treatment, except for leg baths.

It is necessary to be aware that the specific times given for hot and cold applications are significant. Extended heat can cause blood stagnation, while extended cold can cause local tissue anaemia.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT – Thanks is extended to Hopewood Health Retreat, Wallacia NSW.