Water Works

Water Works

Hydrotherapy’s healing power stimulates and soothes

Erin Myover-Piotrowski, 35, had been experiencing fatigue, sluggishness and some digestive troubles. “I didn’t feel well enough to be working out. I’d been taking Zantac and Pepcid,” says the Villa Park resident. “My husband and I used to joke that we had ‘his and her’ Tums on the bedside table.”

When she was also diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, a low-thyroid autoimmune disease, she sought help from naturopathic doctors at the National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) Whole Health Center in Lombard. As part of the treatment protocol, a doctor suggested hydrotherapy, which uses the therapeutic benefit of water at different temperatures to soothe or stimulate various systems in the body.

Therapeutic treatment

The idea of using water for healing and relaxation has been around for centuries. Even Hippocrates said, “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day.” Today, hydrotherapy is gaining more acceptance and undergoing more research as a treatment for conditions ranging from arthritis to GI issues to headaches, according to naturopathic doctor Fraser Smith, ND, assistant dean of the NUHS naturopathic program.

“[Modern] hydrotherapy started in the 19th century in Europe and then came to the U.S.,” Smith says. “It is the use of water — especially water of different temperatures — to stimulate healing and reinvigorate blood circulation and organ function, especially digestive and eliminative organs.”

When Myover-Piotrowski showed up for her first hydrotherapy appointment, she was surprised that she didn’t even get into a pool of water. Instead, she rested on a table on her back and had a hot towel placed over her abdomen for 10 minutes, which was then replaced by a cold one. The process was repeated while she lay on her stomach.

Afterward, she felt extremely relaxed — “kind of like that feeling you get at the end of a massage,” she says. “My blood pressure went way down and my respiration rate went down. … Every time I went, that phenomenon happened.”

She began to see improvement in her energy levels and digestive troubles about three weeks later, after once-a-week visits. “I wasn’t having tummy troubles, and I felt like I had the energy to resume normal activities,” she says. Today she has no fatigue or digestive issues. She loved the process so much, she gets hydrotherapy about once a month to de-stress.

Types of hydrotherapy

Conditions may be treated with a range of techniques. Constitutional hydrotherapy involves the use of warm and cold wet towels on the body in succession.

“The basic premise is you get a lot of circulatory shunting to the digestive area [or where the towels are placed],” Smith says.

Warm water draws blood to the skin while cold drives it away. The resulting increase in blood flow lets the body release waste materials and direct fresh blood and nutrients in its place. This type of hydrotherapy is used to treat joint pain, arthritis, headaches and GI problems and is also used for relaxation.

Another technique uses immersion in a pool of water that may vary in temperature. Immersive hydrotherapy is particularly helpful for people who need post-operative or other types of physical and/or occupational therapy, says Michael Frauendorff, a registered occupational therapist and certified aquatic therapist at Bria Health Services in Westmont.

Different water depths and techniques, such as targeting jets of water on specific body parts, are used, depending on a patient’streatment objectives. Simply being immersed in water can offer benefits you won’t get on land, practitioners say.

“The number one benefit is [in] the buoyancy of the water. The buoyancy helps reduce the weight of the patient,” Frauendorff says.

“If the person has a weight-bearing precaution, like they can only bear 50 percent of their body weight [such as after an injury or surgery], the water drastically reduces their body weight and increases their safety.”

With hydrotherapy, an obese patient who struggles to walk can use an underwater treadmill to exercise or to work on gait pattern. The hydrostatic pressure of the water also can be helpful for patients with swelling or edema. Exercise and physical rehab done in water can eliminate the fear and danger of falling, especially for older people.

Post-op patients can usually use hydrotherapy as soon as five days after surgery, provided the wound is covered with a waterproof bandage, Frauendorff says. He hopes that more surgeons will suggest it to patients as part of a rehabilitation program.

“A lot of doctors here in the Chicago area are new to the hydrotherapy concept, but it’s common in Arizona, California and Southern Florida,” he says. Most people can safely try hydrotherapy, although people with circulatory issues, open wounds and poorly controlled diabetes may not be good candidates.

As interest in alternative medicine and new therapeutic treatments continues to grow, it seems likely that hydrotherapy will become a more accepted treatment for a variety of conditions. If you’re struggling with a chronic health problem or simply want to experience a deep sense of relaxation, it may be worth taking the plunge.

Originally Published in the Fall 2017/Winter 2018 issue