What is Hydrotherapy? Part One

When someone asks me about naturopathic medicine, I invariably list off several of our modalities in an effort to explain my training, and hydrotherapy usually comes up. Their next question is usually, "And what is hydrotherapy?"

I'll admit, until this trimester I wasn't very good at explaining hydrotherapy. I would more or less answer with, "Well, I'm not really sure because I haven't had that class yet." This is the first post I will write as part of an attempt to accurately answer the question, "What is Hydrotherapy?" In the process, I'll examine why I am so drawn to this particular tool in the ND's toolbox.

Here I am administering a constitutional hydrotherapy treatment
fellow ND student Lisa in our Friday afternoon Hydro Lab.

In naturopathic medicine, we recognize the body's ability and tendency toward self-healing. We call this the vis medicatrix naturae. The vis is the built-in guide we all have that allows our bodies to move "toward the healthiest expression of function," aka a healthy state of being (Pizzorno and Murray). Assuming that we provide our bodies the proper environment, we should be able to achieve a healthy state because theviscan work free of encumbrances (like fast food, unhappiness, too much beer, not enough sleep, or not enough love, to name a few.)  Hydrotherapy, specifically constitutional hydrotherapy, works by stimulating this self-healing mechanism, the vis.

This photo and the rest below are from a display in the library about
the history of medicine. I love these old images depicting hydrotherapy treatments!

So what is constitutional hydrotherapy? The quick definition, as supplied by Pizzorno and Murray in the Textbook of Natural Medicine, states that it is a simple procedure "involving the placement of hot and then cold towels on the trunk and back in specific sequence (depending on the patient), usually accompanied by a sine wave stimulation of the digestive tract." The treatment "recovers digestive function, stimulates toxin elimination, 'cleans the blood', and enhances immune function." All of these actions serve to move "the system along to a healthier state."


Hydrotherapy in general is defined as "the use of water, in any of its forms, for the maintenance of health or the treatment of disease." This can include application of water to the body via "sprays, douches, frictions, immersions, whirlpools, steams," etc. Modern research on hydrotherapy techniques for the treatment of disease is lacking because, I suspect, water exists already and no one can make a buck on redesigning it; it's pretty good as it is. Maybe someday when we truly encounter its scarcity, someone will study it. Or, maybe when Big Pharma dies. Or, when pigs fly. 


Anyways, before I get too much further into the what, let's examine where our modern naturopathic hydrotherapy came from. Much of the information we use for the basis of today's naturopathic application of hydrotherapy comes from centuries of clinical evidence, recorded and compiled by various healers over hundreds of years. Dr. O.G. Carroll, an ND who practiced in Spokane, Washington, may be considered the grandfather of modern naturopathic Constitutional Hydrotherapy in the United States, having been the one to add the sine wave stimulation. He studied with several storied and experienced hydrotherapy practitioners including Dr. Henry Lindlahr. Dr. Lindlahr practiced hydrotherapy at his Nature Cure (a name for the medicine that preceded the word naturopathy) sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois from 1914-1928. I should note, of course, that Lindlahr's School of Natural Therapeutics (again, a forerunner to naturopathy) was absorbed by the National College of Chiropractic (present day NUHS!) in 1926. 


There is so much more I could share about the rich history of hydrotherapy, but I would be hard pressed to do it justice. One book I have explored is Nature Doctors by Kirchfeld and Boyle. Though the book is rather dense and doesn't really read like a story, it definitely is a good source for learning about the history of our profession. I have also sought out books written by Henry Lindlahr and those by his son, Victor Lindlahr, on Nature Cure and Natural Therapeutics. The Textbook of Natural Medicine by Pizzorno and Murray that I referenced several times in this post has a whole chapter on hydrotherapy that I have yet to finish reading. I know there are so many more books out there, too, just waiting patiently for me to finish school and find the time to devour them...feel free to point me in the right direction if you have any suggestions!


I guarantee I've missed a lot of detail here, and I encourage you to fill in the gaps as you explore and study our medicine. Next time I'll focus more on what hydrotherapy actually does to the body, and why this makes it a useful therapy. Until then, have a lovely Week 8!  I hope everyone's midterms are going smoothly!