What to Know About Hydrotherapy

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on October 04, 2022
4 min read

You should always drink enough water every day, but that has nothing to do with hydrotherapy. Instead, grab your swimsuit, goggles, and ice packs, then get ready for your hydrotherapy session.

Hydrotherapy (or, aquatherapy) is a type of physical therapy that utilizes water in order to provide many forms of relief. Hydrotherapy has been around as long as people have taken baths or put wet rags on their foreheads. 

Medical professionals first began to seriously explore the potential of hydrotherapy in the last couple of decades, though, and even made it a preferable option for the symptomatic treatment of certain health conditions. 

Hydrotherapy is a complementary, integrative, or alternative treatment option. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate complementary treatments, you may have to thoroughly research your hydrotherapists before jumping in.

Hydrotherapy ranges from casual at-home treatments to professional treatments in a special facility. Your needs will determine the type of hydrotherapy you’ll get.

Most common types of hydrotherapy. Many people treat themselves with hydrotherapy at home without even realizing it. Baths are the most common form of hydrotherapy.

Baths can be hot or cold. Either way, soaking in the water relaxes your mind and muscles, fitting the criteria for hydrotherapy.

Similarly, bathtubs or hot tubs with pressurized jets of water are common in hydrotherapy. The pressured water massages your body and can relieve certain symptoms.

Ice packs, hot water bottles, and baths are other forms of hydrotherapy that are broadly accessible. Even saunas at your local spa or gym are considered a type of hydrotherapy.

Less common hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy in a special facility is less common. However, water aerobics or swimming can still be forms of therapy.

Some hydrotherapy even involves special equipment. For example, a pool of water with a treadmill at the bottom may be used.

Hydrotherapy functions on a few different levels. 

Water temperature. Warm water encourages your muscles and joints to relax. Relaxation helps them move easier and makes it easier to exercise.

Buoyancy. You naturally float in the water, so the water helps your body support itself. This reduces strain on your joints and muscles.

Resistance. It’s harder to move through water than air because of the resistance. This helps you build muscle strength

Hydrotherapy isn’t a standard treatment for anything. It focuses on relieving broader symptoms, particularly pain, stiffness, and swelling.

Hydrotherapy can help treat the symptoms of health conditions like:

  • Arthritis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Neuropathy
  • Parkinson’s disease

Burn injuries. Pressurized water is an effective way to clean burned skin and reduce burn symptoms. It can also reduce scarring and discoloration when your skin heals.

Pregnancy. Hydrotherapy can lower anxiety and pain in pregnant people. This can help alleviate high blood pressure and prevent complications throughout the pregnancy.

Recovery. Hydrotherapy is a great way to exercise after an injury or surgery. It can stimulate your recovery process, though it may also increase your risk of infection, depending on how clean the water is.

Before starting hydrotherapy, even an at-home treatment like regular baths, talk with your doctor. You may put yourself at risk for complications without realizing it.

What you need. If you’re going to a hydrotherapy session in a facility, you may need a swimsuit, towels, and medications.

Fortunately, you don’t need to know how to swim for professional hydrotherapy. You’ll typically exercise in shallow water or at a depth suitable for your abilities.

For hydrotherapy at home, you may need ice packs, hot water bottles, a thermometer to check the bathtub temperature, a specific showerhead for pressurized water, and Epsom salts

Session length. Hydrotherapy workout sessions will be about 30 minutes long, at least to begin with. You may feel like you can exercise for much longer since the water is helping you out, but it’s easy to overdo it.

What you’ll do. A physiotherapist will guide you through slow and controlled exercises. The exact exercises you do will depend on your needs.

Hydrotherapy is an easy form of treatment that you can mostly do at home. It’s an effective way to supplement other forms of treatment that might not relieve all of your symptoms.

While it might not be able to replace all types of treatments, it can be an adequate substitute for some medications or invasive treatments.

Hydrotherapy is adaptable to your needs. Even if it stops working for you or one type of hydrotherapy isn’t effective, there’s always something else you can try.

Side effects. Hydrotherapy is safe and has few side effects. However, some side effects may include:

  • Slipping or other accidents
  • Burns from scalding water
  • Frostbite from icy water 
  • Infections

Who should avoid hydrotherapy? Some people may be more at risk of side effects or complications from hydrotherapy. You should take extra precautions if you have:

Since you’ll talk to your doctor before pursuing hydrotherapy, though, they can work with you to determine what therapy program would be best for your health and avoid complications.

Reputable hydrotherapists. Since The FDA doesn’t regulate hydrotherapy, you have to be sure to be diligent to find a reputable hydrotherapist. Some hydrotherapists aren’t reputable or qualified, so always work with your doctor to find the right one for you.

Avoid hydrotherapy that advertises cures or toxin removal. These types of claims aren’t proven and can lead to complications, depending on the techniques of the therapist.

There are many ways to try out hydrotherapy, even in your own home. It’s low-risk, but you still shouldn’t dive in right away. 

Talk to your doctor to make sure hydrotherapy will work for you. If your current treatment isn’t working, hydrotherapy might be able to help.