Hydrotherapy is the use of water for healing the body. Specifically, alternating hot and cold water therapy is hugely beneficial for pain relief and it’s free!
Using hot and cold can help manage pain. For acute pain (eg. sprained ankle in the first 48 hours), cold is always used, to keep swelling down. But chronic pain doesn’t have the same kind of swelling as a very recent injury. Often, the issue is actually that the area is not getting enough circulation.
Circulation is necessary for healing chronic injury and damage because it brings fresh, healing blood with growth factors and platelets, and takes away cellular waste products and toxins. Injuries in tendons and other areas with poor circulation often heal poorly for the lack of fresh blood.
For this reason, many injuries and areas of damage benefit greatly from hydrotherapy. Alternating exposure to cold and hot water is an excellent way to stimulate circulation and waste removal from an inflamed or injured area of the body and reduce pain.
How does it work?
Cold water makes the superficial blood vessels constrict, sending the blood into deeper tissue. Following that with hot water dilates the superficial vessels and draws it out again. Alternating hot and cold in buckets of water or in hot/cold showers is essentially acting like a pump in your muscles, moving the blood around and helping flush out areas that don’t get quite as much circulation. This is also an excellent technique for someone with cold hands and feet in the winter- alternating hot and cold showers can save you from the painful cold in the fingertips and toes.
When using alternating hot and cold hydrotherapy, it is important that you always start with hot and finish with cold. A basic hydrotherapy protocol looks like this:
- Start hot (not scaling) for 3 minutes
- Alternate between hot and cold every 3 minutes, going as cold as you can go without pain and as hot as you can go without scalding yourself.
- Repeat for 8 cycles (4x each temp) and finish cold.
You can use buckets of water if it’s for ankles or feet, visit a spa or spring with hot and cool baths, or you can simply turn your shower to hot and cold.
What does it help treat?
- Strains and sprains of the foot, ankle, elbow, knee, wrist, neck, or shoulder
- Swelling (once the acute stage has passed)
- Muscle spasms
- Joint aches
- Repetitive-strain injuries, such as tendonitis or tennis elbow
- Sports injuries
- Flare-ups of chronic conditions, such as arthritis or fibromyalgia
- Some pains associated with cancer
- Any other injury that causes swelling or aching
When to use contrast hydrotherapy
Use when an injury is a semi-chronic or chronic condition. This means when it’s been more than 72 hours after an injury and your body is not in acute inflammation. It’s particularly helpful for recurrent or very long-term “achey” pain, even pain that’s been there for months or years.
When not to use contrast hydrotherapy
Don’t use when there is any open skin wounds or risk of infection. Be cautious if there is decreased sensation or neuropathy (as in a diabetic foot, for example), because it may be harder to tell if the water is scalding or freezing the skin. Likewise be cautious if there are any heart or systemic conditions that react to varying temperatures, like cold urticaria (hives).