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Hydrotherapy Treatment for Inflammation

Conquer painful inflammation symptoms by using the anti-inflammatory benefits of cold water.

By Christopher Vasey, N.D.

Cover courtesy Inner Traditions International

Natural Remedies for Inflammation (Healing Arts Press, 2014) by Christopher Vasey contains valuable information about treating inflammation naturally. The book examines 50 of the most common inflammation-related illnesses and explains which medicinal plant or food supplement is best suited to ease the symptoms and help the body heal.The following excerpt is from Chapter 7, "Hydrotherapy."

Photo courtesy © jStock

Hydrotherapy is a treatment that consists of applying either cold or hot water on the body's surface. The site and duration of the application vary in accordance with the patient's needs. The purpose of these applications is to stimulate necessary physiological exchanges when they are insufficient or to slow them down when they are too intense. The results of the treatment manifest not just on the surface of the body but also in its depths, in the blood capillaries, muscles, and organs.

With respect to the effects of hot hydrotherapy, as a quick summary I can say that the heat warms what is cold, dilates what is contracted, accelerates what has slowed down, and intensifies blood circulation. If you consider it closely, its effects are identical to those of inflammation: heat (the increase in body temperature), tumescence (swelling of the tissues), redness (intensification of blood flow), and pain (when it becomes too hot).

Knowing this, it is easy to grasp the value that therapeutic applications of cold water can have. Cold cools down what is hot, contracts what is dilated, slows down what is moving too fast, and soothes pain. More specifically, the contact of cold water with a hot, inflamed zone naturally causes it to lose its heat; in other words it cools down, which causes the capillaries to tighten up. This vasoconstrictive effect reduces blood circulation to the region, which will cause it to lose its red color. The vasoconstriction also causes the tissues to tighten up, which expels the plasma stored there and thereby reduces swelling in that zone. The cold also "anesthetizes" the nerves, reducing their sensitivity as well as their ability to transmit signals, thereby yielding an analgesic effect.

inflamed zone
Photo courtesy © lassedesignen

The Limits of Cold Hydrotherapy

While cold hydrotherapy has anti-inflammatory effects, it cannot counter all the disorders caused by inflammation. In fact, in some situations cold hydrotherapy is contraindicated, as the cold water can actually aggravate the patient's condition.

Human beings are warm-blooded creatures, with a fixed internal temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Slight deviations above or below this mark are possible, but normally they are minimal (a variance of only a couple degrees). Moreover, the body is always working to maintain this ideal temperature. An application of cold water threatens the body's thermic balance, compelling it to react and call upon its own forces. Here we encounter the first delicate point of cold water applications: The amount of cold applied to the body should not outstrip the body's abilities to neutralize it. If too much cold is applied, the body will overexert itself in response and become weaker. The strength it could use to oppose germs, allergens, or other irritants will be reduced; they will then gain the upper hand and the inflammation will worsen.

For this reason the intensity of coldness in the hydrotherapy treatment must be very precisely monitored. To begin usually the water should be cool (around 77 degrees) as opposed to cold (40 degrees), and the length of time for which it is applied should be limited (one to two minutes, rather than fifteen minutes). It is also important to confine the application to just the part of the body that is inflamed and painful.

However, even when taking all these precautions, some organs are simply not capable of reacting effectively against the cold, and they should not be subject to cold hydrotherapy. These organs include the nose, the lungs, the kidneys, the bladder, the stomach, and the intestines. But why are these organs particularly vulnerable to the cold? Few explanations have been provided, but it could be because these organs are hollow — that is, they have thin walls containing a large cavity. The walls of the lungs, for example, are formed by the rib cage and pleura, while those of the intestines are made up of very thin mucous membranes. As a result these organs may not have enough volume and blood to react effectively. Furthermore, they are constantly losing heat to their cavity.

Photo courtesy © Deyan Georgiev

The Benefits of Cold Hydrotherapy

It is an entirely different story for those organs that are heavily irrigated by blood vessels (such as the skin and muscles), whose cavity is filled with blood (such as blood vessels), or that are firmly surrounded by flesh and blood vessels (such as bones, joints, tendons, and nerves). Cold hydrotherapeutic applications are highly beneficial for these organs.

Cold Hydrotherapy Effects on Organs

Beneficial Contraindicted
Skin Respiratory tract
Muscle Digestive tract
Joints Kidneys
Tendons Bladder

Cold Hydrotherapy Effects on Diseases and Disorders

If, instead of considering the organs, we concentrate on the diseases and disorders that can or cannot benefit from cold hydrotherapy, we come up with the following list:

Beneficial Contraindicted
Insect Stings Colds
Burns Bronchitis
Itching Nephritis
Eczema Cystitis
Aching muscles Enteritis
Neuritis Colitis
Tendinitis Prostatitis
Dental pain


As in all other fields, the general rules of hydrotherapy must be adapted for each individual case. Though nerve inflammation (neuritis, sciatica, toothache) and the pain it causes can be soothed by cold hydrotherapeutic applications for some people, for other people that problem will not be relieved by these treatments but will be aggravated. It is rarely possible to know in advance how an individual will react to this treatment; it has to be discovered by trying it. So it is extremely important when starting such treatment to pay very close attention to the patient's reaction, so that you will quickly detect any signs indicating that it is not working.

Some Cold Hydrotherapy Applications

When I use the term "cold water," I mean water whose temperature is sufficiently lower than that of the body to be felt as cold. As normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees, water is considered lukewarm until it falls to a temperature of around 80 degrees to 81 degrees. It is considered cool at around 72 degrees and cold at 59 degrees. It is considered very cold at around 44 degrees. At 32 degrees it turns to ice, which can also be used for the purpose of hydrotherapy.

The lower the temperature of the water, the shorter its application to the body should be. A person can bathe in 77 degrees water for many minutes at a time, as when swimming in a pool or at the seaside. In contrast icy water or ice cubes should remain in contact with the body for no more than a few minutes.

Here are three cold hydrotherapy techniques that have proven effective in treating inflammation.

Photo courtesy © Lucky Dragon

Bag of Ice

Because it employs ice, this application has a powerful effect that brings inflammation to a screeching halt, at least momentarily. The icy cold anesthetizes the area and reduces or even eliminates the pain caused by the inflammation.

Indications: Insect sting, headache, contusion, toothache, joint pain, hemorrhoids, phlebitis, tendinitis.

Materials: Whole ice cubes or shards (use a hammer), a plastic bag, a protective cloth.

Preparation: Place the ice cubes in the plastic bag. Use enough ice to cover the entire area needing treatment, but no more.

Application: Place a protective cloth over the affected area to protect the skin from the ice. Fold the cloth as needed, in accordance with the sensitivity of the individual receiving the cold treatment. Place the poultice on the cloth.

Duration: Apply for one to three minutes; base the duration on the patient's reaction to the treatment.

Frequency: Repeat this application two or three times during the day, or more often if needed.

cool cloth
Photo courtesy © Gorilla

Cold Water Compress

The effects of this compress are similar to those of the bag of ice, but much less intense, and thus less profound and of shorter duration. The compress will quickly lose its temperature once it enters in contact with the heat of the inflammation, which is not the case for the bag of ice. However, the specific advantages of the compress are its less violent nature and the possibility of applying it for longer periods of time.

Indications: Conjunctivitis, eczema, hives, itching, allergic reactions in the skin and eyes, thrush, athlete's foot, neuritis, joint pain, phlebitis, tonsillitis, sore throat.

Material: A bowl of cold water, ice cubes, a cloth large enough to fold several times and then cover the entire area needing treatment.

Preparation: Place the ice cubes in the cold water. When the water has attained the desired temperature, dip the compress into it, and lightly squeeze it to wring out excess water.

Application: Place the water-soaked compress over the inflamed zone.

Duration: Remove the compress before it becomes warm, dip it again in the cold water, and place it back over the affected area.

Frequency: Repeat the application as often as desired.

Photo courtesy © JPC-PROD

Cold Clay Poultice

The density of the support — the clay here — holds the cold temperature longer. A clay poultice will lose its temperature less quickly than the cold water compress described above, for the simple reason that water has less density than clay. This makes it possible to have longer applications, with deeply penetrating effects.

Indications: Acne, abscess, boil, toothache, joint pain, tendinitis.

Material: Powdered clay, a bowl of cold water, a wooden spatula or other mixing utensil.

Preparation: Using the wooden spatula, blend the powdered clay with the cold water until you obtain a very moist but solid paste. If necessary, you can place the paste in the refrigerator for a few minutes to make it colder.

Application: Spread the clay over the affected area in a layer that is 1/4 to 3/4 inch thick.

Duration: Leave the poultice in place until it turns lukewarm (which will take thirty minutes or more).

Frequency: Put a new poultice on immediately or after several hours, as desired. Apply two or three poultices a day.


Cold hydrotherapy is a simple, effective, inexpensive, and rapid means for calming an inflammation and easing the pain it causes. It can be used as an emergency treatment or as a supplement to other anti-inflammatory treatments.

More from: Natural Remedies for Inflammation:
Anti-Inflammatory Plants

Christopher Vasey, N.D., is a naturopath specializing in detoxification and rejuvenation. He is the author of The Acid-Alkaline Diet for Optimum Health, Optimal Detox,The Naturopathic Way, The Water Prescription,The Whey Prescription,The Detox Mono Diet, andThe Healing Power of Fever. He lives near Montreux, Switzerland.

Natural Remedies for Inflammation by Christopher Vasey, N.D. © 2014 Healing Arts Press. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.

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