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Without water we would die. It is water that sustains us, water that fills the tissues of our bodies, lubricates our joints, brings nutrients and carries away toxins. It is something that humankind has known for millennia. But it is not just the ingestion of water that is important to health; water that we bathe in or apply to the body in its various forms, such as ice or steam, or pressurized water pulsating against the skin also contributes to maintaining health and healing.

A Brief History of Water Used Therapeutically

Water has been used in various cultures for its healing and rejuvenating powers for thousands of years. In pre-historic civilizations water was seen as connected to divinity, to the gods and goddesses responsible for all of nature. An individual with aches and pains from a long day’s hunting expedition may have sat within a quickly flowing stream, the same way modern man sits in a whirlpool bath. He may have sat in a small cave with a pile of heated stones and herbs, and tossed water upon them to create a cleansing and aromatic steam. A person living near a Celtic mud-hole or at the edge of a mineral rich bog might have submersed himself in order to recover from fever or soothe an itchy, painful rash.

Later in ancient Roman and Greek eras, the healing powers of mineral rich waters would be harnessed into bath houses and spas. Belief in the health promoting qualities of water would have ups and downs through the passage of time, but reach a cultish level during the nineteenth century from the lands of Arabia and Asia to the shores of Western Europe. Even today names like Vichy in France, Baden-Baden in Germany and Bath in England are still known worldwide as health spas with healing waters. These waters create a bond from modern generations of individuals seeking wellness, to those of primordial times, the same way they have connected the shores of continents around the world since time began.

Types of Water Therapies

After its decline, in part because of unsanitary conditions and poor hygiene practices, water therapies fell into disrepute and were felt to be responsible for or contribute to such diseases as cholera, the plague, parasitic infestations, skin lesions and more. In recent years there has been a resurgence in the use of water therapies and a recognition that, if done correctly, they can contribute to healing.

Water is an element that can be used in many ways. As ice it becomes solid, heated to above 32F, or 0C degrees, it becomes liquid. A bit more heat and it becomes a relaxing warmth that permeates aching muscles. When it reaches 212F, or 100C, it becomes vaporous, turning into steam as it rumbles into a boiling frenzy.

As a liquid, it is perhaps at its most versatile. It can be used in compresses of varying temperatures helping to increase circulation (using heat) or reduce inflammation (using cold). Put under pressure it can become a powerful jet stream, pummeling the skin and layers of unwanted fat beneath the surface. A lighter pressure becomes an invigorating shower, and in a tub with water jets becomes a soothing whirlpool.

In the field of massage therapy as well as spa treatments there are several modalities and techniques that use water as a primary part of an application. These include:

  • Contrast Therapy – The use of alternating heat and cold in a therapeutic setting, used to alleviate pain and increase flexibility to stiff joints.
  • Steam Baths – Used in such devices as steam canopies and steam rooms. Steam can be used in several ways. In most of them the steam is somehow contained in a restricted space in order to retain both the heat and the moisture to facilitate sweating, increase circulation in order to help rid the body of toxins, fatty tissue and retained water.
  • Showers – Such as Vichy shower (an overhead shower with multiple heads suspended over a treatment table); used to rinse off spa treatments like mud or herbal wraps and invigorate the body
  • Saunas – Saunas and their variations can offer either wet or dry heat. There is usually a central heating element such as stone. If a wet, steamy heat is preferred then water may be poured onto the stones. If dry heat is used, then the client may follow it with a swim in a cold lake, cold bath, or dousing with cold water, even rolling in snow! Benefits include stimulation of circulation, deep cleansing of pores and skin, and a flushing of waste and impurities from the body.
  • Turkish Baths – Similar to steam baths, but usually at a lower temperature, which allows the therapist to enter and work
  • Watsu – An advanced modality developed by Harold Dull. The name is derived from combining the words “water” and “shiatsu.” The client receives a combination of techniques including cradling, stretching and gentle body movements while partially submerged. The water allows for movements that might otherwise be impossible for certain clients on dry land.
  • Waterbed/Massage Table – Not a specific massage modality, but a tool in itself which helps with various traditional massage techniques. The waterbed type mattress provides a surface that offers more comfort to those who may find traditional mattresses uncomfortable or even painful. They are often made with elevated sides and drainage, so as to be used in wet treatment rooms for mud or herbal applications or wraps.
  • Hydrocollator – The hydrocollator is a piece of equipment used to store and heat various sized heating packs using hot water. The packs then retain the moist heat which is applied to the body for therapeutic use. The moist heat helps to relax muscle tissue and make it more receptive to massage techniques.

Water Therapies Are Good for…

Each form of water therapy may be good for various conditions. Depending on the therapy used and the condition being addressed there will be different precautions and contraindications. Always research both the technique and the condition before applying water-based methods of bodywork.

  • Pregnancy Massage – Whether prenatal, during delivery or after, the mother may experience less pain using something like Watsu. Methods using steam or pressure should not be used on pregnant women.
  • Disabilities That Affect Mobility – Neuromuscular, or musculoskeletal conditions, such as Cerebral palsy, Muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis or paralysis can benefit from modalities that take pressure off the joints and allow for weightlessness in water.

Adding water to your massage toolkit can help not only to expand the techniques you use on current clients, but also help to grow your client base to include a wider range of ailments.