Hydrotherapy, or the use of water at varying temperatures for therapeutic benefits, can serve as massage therapist self-care by increasing circulation and relieving pain in the feet, hands and other areas of the body. Changing water temperatures has a big effect on blood flow, which in turn can improve healing time, energy, mood and many other aspects of your life.

The benefits of hydrotherapy and how it works

When warm water is applied to the body, it causes your blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow to that area. When cold water is applied, it causes your blood vessels to contract. Warm and cold water, used in an alternating manner, effectively acts like a pump. This is beneficial to your blood vessels, as it tonifies them, making them more adaptable to both physical and emotional stressors.

Cold water also activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your body’s fight-or-flight response. Stimulating this system regularly in this minor way helps your body respond appropriately to stimuli: For example, when a minor stressor occurs in life your fight-or-flight response shouldn’t be fully activated, only a little activated. Changing water temperatures can impact healing time, energy, mood and many other aspects of your life. A number of studies, including one published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine (2010) have examined the effect of hydrotherapy on depression and anxiety, and the preliminary evidence suggests it can have a significantly positive effect.

Here are four simple techniques you can use at home to experience the benefits of hydrotherapy. (If you have any sensory deficits, please speak to your physician before trying them. If you begin to experience any dizziness, pain or discomfort of any kind, discontinue the therapy immediately and contact your physician.)

Contrast shower

A contrast shower can considerably improve your mood and energy through the day. It can also help you feel warmer during the day if you tend to feel cold.

Take your morning shower as you usually would, but at the end turn the temperature to as cool as you can tolerate—it doesn’t need to be ice-cold. Run the water over your legs, arms, front and back for a total of about 30 seconds and then shut the water off. Typically this technique needs to be done consistently for days or weeks before effects are noticed, because you are tonifying the body’s blood vessels and, as with any exercise, that takes time; so don’t give up if you don’t feel a change immediately.

Contrast hydrotherapy

This technique can help improve circulation—cold feet, for example—and healing time for a specific area of the body, such as a sprain, bruise or muscle strain. You need a bowl of warm water and a bowl of cold water; you can either immerse the body part or use a wet washcloth. Alternatively, you can use an ice pack and a hot pad.

Apply warm water for three minutes, then apply the cold water for 30 seconds, and then repeat for a total of three cycles, ending on cold. This acts as a pump—the warmth opens up the blood vessels and pulls in the blood, and the cold closes them down, pushing it out. Contrast hydrotherapy can be repeated multiple times in a day.

Warming socks

Warming socks can help with stuffy head, flu, sinus congestion or headache. Before bed, take a pair of cotton socks and a pair of wool socks. Wet the cotton socks thoroughly, wring them out and put them on your feet. Then pull the dry pair of wool socks over them and go to bed.

When you wake up in the morning, the cotton socks will be dry. The cold, wet socks stimulate increased blood to be sent to the feet to warm them, which can improve body-wide circulation and reduce head congestion.

Warm footbath

This footbath is a variation on the warming socks technique, which can also help with stuffy head, sinus congestion or headache. Place your feet in warm water for 20 to 30 minutes. This improves blood flow to the feet and increases body-wide circulation. 

Shawnti Rockwell, N.D.About the Author

Shawnti Rockwell, N.D., is a resident at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health (bastyrcenter.org), and sees patients there. She has particular interests in family medicine, gastrointestinal health, pediatrics, women’s health and diabetes.