Hot Water Hydrotherapy Vs. Cold Water Hydrotherapy

  • Jainam ShahBEng in Bioengineering, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
  • Duyen Nguyen MSci Human Biology, University of Birmingham

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Introduction

Definition of hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy is the external or internal use of water in any form, such as water, ice, or steam, for the promotion of health and the treatment of a wide array of diseases.1 Hydrotherapy includes the application of water at different temperatures, pressures, durations, and sites to achieve therapeutic effects. The goal is to manage conditions by applying the therapeutic effects of water throughout the body.

Historical context of hydrotherapy

Throughout history, hydrotherapy has had a prevalent presence in ancient cultures, including India, Egypt, and China. Although the unique benefits of hydrotherapy often go under-appreciated in today’s holistic therapy landscape, its enduring presence in these societies underscores its historical significance in healthcare practices.

Importance in modern medicine

Hydrotherapy has been utilised by numerous countries to elicit diverse physiological and therapeutic effects on the body. In modern medicine, there is a growing recognition of the potential of hydrotherapy in maintaining health, preventing diseases, and contributing to treatment strategies. Particular diseases in which the use of hydrotherapy can be beneficial include:

It’s important to note that although hydrotherapy has been shown to provide some health benefits it is not a complete cure for these diseases. Moreover, hydrotherapy should not replace any existing treatments/medications prescribed to you by your healthcare provider. 

Types of hydrotherapy

Overview of hot water hydrotherapy

Hot water hydrotherapy involves the use of warm water to stimulate various responses in the body. Immersion in water at different temperatures can lead to distinct effects on the body's vital functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and hormone concentrations. Hot water immersion at different temperatures has been found to have various effects on the body, including lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and hormone concentrations.1 

While specifics may vary between different individuals, general applications associated with hot water hydrotherapy include:

Hot water hydrotherapy is not only limited to warm body or foot baths, it can also include the following techniques:

Hydro-massage

Involves the application of a chemical, mechanical, and thermal massage to the body. This promotes improved blood flow and relief of pain and tension.

Steam baths or Turkish baths

These rooms are filled with warm, humid air, ranging from 40°C to 55°C. The steam helps the body release impurities and is used to treat skin problems, asthma, bronchitis, and more.

Sauna

In contrast to steam rooms, saunas have dry, warm air, which promotes sweating. Studies have shown that in patients with chronic heart failure (CHF), the use of the sauna at 60°C led to an improvement in cardiac function.1

Overview of cold water hydrotherapy

Cold water hydrotherapy involves, as the name suggests, the application of cold water for health benefits. Cold water hydrotherapy typically uses cold water, with temperatures ranging between, but not limited to, 8°C–10°C.2 Some benefits include:

Water immersion, involving partial or complete immersion of the body, is a key technique in cold water hydrotherapy.2 This method allows the body to trigger physiological responses that contribute to health benefits due to the cold stimulation within the body. 

Other techniques may include cold water baths or showers. Cold hydrotherapy can even be as easy as the application of cold packs. These applications are often tailored to the specific needs and conditions of individuals undergoing cold water hydrotherapy. In modern medicine, cold water hydrotherapy has shown effectiveness in post-traumatic recovery and the reduction of musculoskeletal symptoms.

Benefits of hot water hydrotherapy

Improved circulation

While submerged in warm water, the body triggers a mechanism known as vasodilation. Vasodilation is when the blood vessels in the body widen (dilate). This mechanism can occur in the body without you even knowing and can be directly induced by hot water hydrotherapy as well. Vasodilation allows more oxygen and nutrients to flow throughout the body due to increased blood flow. This allows all parts of the body to receive sufficient oxygen and nutrients. Another benefit of wider blood vessels due to vasodilation is that it helps lower blood pressure. This is caused by a decrease in systemic vascular resistance (SVR), the resistance blood faces when travelling through the body, and an increase in blood flow, which in turn leads to a reduction in blood pressure.

Muscle relaxation and pain relief

Warmth has a relaxing effect on muscles. The heat from the water can help soothe muscle tension, stiffness, and pain. Studies have demonstrated that leg immersion in warm water (40°C) before exercise reduced most indicators of muscle damage caused by exercise, including muscle soreness. The use of spa water (37°C) for patients with osteoarthritis of the knee led to an improvement in symptoms and quality of life. Furthermore, the increase in oxygen and nutrient flow caused by vasodilation helps to accelerate the removal of metabolic byproducts such as lactic acid. This, alongside the other benefits, promotes general muscle relaxation and a sense of relief.1 

Benefits of cold water hydrotherapy

Vasoconstriction 

Cold water hydrotherapy, specifically immersion, can lead to vasoconstriction, a process where blood vessels narrow. This constriction leads to a central pooling of blood, which is followed by vasodilation, a widening of blood vessels, upon emerging from the cold water.3 This unique mechanism, as observed in various studies, results in muscle reoxygenation and improvements in recovery and exercise performance.

Research has shown that cold water immersion results in higher muscle oxygenation during the immersion period.4 Further studies have also delved into the impact of cold water immersion on muscle oxygenation and blood flow after exercise.5 These findings suggest that by inducing vasoconstriction and vasodilation, hydrotherapy promotes changes in oxygen use and delivery within the targeted muscle tissues. These alterations play a crucial role in enhancing recovery and potentially influencing subsequent exercise performance.

Decreased swelling and enhanced muscle recovery

Alternating between the different types of water therapy (e.g., 1 min hot water and 1 min cold water), has been proven to reduce muscle soreness. These types of contrast baths are beneficial for pain reduction and stiffness in affected extremities and muscles. In athletes, cold water hydrotherapy does not induce inflammatory markers and is not proven to hinder performance. Instead, a reduction in fatigue is associated with the use of cold water therapy due to an increase in opioid tone and high metabolic rate. This results in the reduction of pain and enhancement of recovery, which can improve training and performance in athletes.1 

Furthermore, vasoconstriction can help decrease swelling in affected areas by limiting the amount of fluid that accumulates in the tissues. This also promotes faster recovery from injuries or intense physical activity. Additionally, cold water can numb the affected areas, allowing relief and improving mobility and function. Therefore, incorporating cold water hydrotherapy into recovery routines can be beneficial for athletes and individuals looking to manage swelling and enhance their overall physical well-being.

Risks of hydrotherapy

While hydrotherapy does offer numerous benefits, risks should also be carefully considered before considering it as a therapeutic activity. Due to the water temperature, hydrotherapy is associated with the risk of drastic changes in body temperature. Therefore, it is important to monitor and take appropriate precautions during hydrotherapy to reduce the risks of hypothermia and hyperthermia

For cold water hydrotherapy, the following health risks may occur if the body temperature falls below 32.2°C:2 

  • Reduced consciousness
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Decreased breathing
  • Low blood pressure 

The most prevalent risks are related to cardiorespiratory problems that are often related to the initial cold shock when entering cold water.6 

Conversely, hot water hydrotherapy can cause hyperthermia which can potentially lead to conditions like heat stroke and severe burns. Hot water immersion at 45°C or higher may cause damage to cells due to protein denaturation which may have detrimental effects on cellular processes and tissue health.2 

Summary

As discussed, hydrotherapy offers a range of health benefits, including improved circulation, muscle relaxation and recovery, and pain relief. Hot water hydrotherapy can promote relaxation and the removal of metabolic byproducts. Whereas, cold water hydrotherapy is used to help with oxygenation and decrease muscle swelling to aid in efficient recovery. Changes in body temperature during hydrotherapy may pose risks; therefore, it is important to be aware of them. Drastic changes in body temperature may lead to hypothermia or hyperthermia, with potential further effects on consciousness, heart rate, and breathing. Moreover, high water temperatures may, but rarely, cause damage to cells due to protein denaturation, potentially impacting processes in the body and tissue health. Weighing both the pros and the risks of hydrotherapy and consulting a healthcare professional is key when considering hydrotherapy as a wellness practice.

References

  1. Mooventhan A, Nivethitha L. Scientific Evidence-Based Effects of Hydrotherapy on Various Systems of the Body. N Am J Med Sci [Internet]. 2014 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 6(5):199–209. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4049052/.
  2. An J, Lee I, Yi Y. The Thermal Effects of Water Immersion on Health Outcomes: An Integrative Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 16(7):1280. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6479732/.
  3. Yeung SS, Ting KH, Hon M, Fung NY, Choi MM, Cheng JC, et al. Effects of Cold Water Immersion on Muscle Oxygenation During Repeated Bouts of Fatiguing Exercise. Medicine (Baltimore) [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 95(1):e2455. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4706272/.
  4. Tseng C-Y, Lee J-P, Tsai Y-S, Lee S-D, Kao C-L, Liu T-C, et al. Topical cooling (icing) delays recovery from eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. J Strength Cond Res. 2013; 27(5):1354–61.
  5. Ihsan M, Watson G, Lipski M, Abbiss CR. Influence of postexercise cooling on muscle oxygenation and blood volume changes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013; 45(5):876–82.
  6. Espeland D, Weerd L de, Mercer JB. Health effects of voluntary exposure to cold water – a continuing subject of debate. Int J Circumpolar Health [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 1]; 81(1):2111789. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9518606/.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Jainam Shah

BEng in Bioengineering, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Jainam is a bioengineer with a strong scientific and authoring background. As a recent graduate he has begun his journey into the field of medical writing with previous pieces writing achieved during his time at university specifically during his research projects. He also has a background in teaching which provides him the key skills to simplify complex concepts for less experienced individuals.

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