Constitutional Hydrotherapy—A Cornerstone of The Art and Science of Naturopathic Medicine

Constitutional Hydrotherapy is a versatile, and powerful treatment that is utilized by Naturopathic physicians in a manner that can be likened to the use of acupuncture in Classical and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Although they are not the same, and are not interchangeable, the art of each relies upon an assessment of the health of different organs, and then the specific application of techniques to bring about balance to those organs and the entire body. Constitutional hydrotherapy combines alternating hot and cold towels to the front and back of the torso with physiotherapy devices in order to directly effect various organs or tissue states as well as systemically treat pathways of digestion and detoxification. So what is constitutional hydrotherapy, and how can it be used to transform your health?

The Basics: History, Evolution, and Overview

Hydrotherapy is one of the oldest methods of healing and has been utilized in most ancient cultures in some form or another for thousands of years. The basic definition of hydrotherapy is the use of water at various temperatures to create a therapeutic effect on the body. The modern evolution of Naturopathic Hydrotherapy began with the techniques of Father Sebastian Kneipp of Germany, and Vincent Priessnitz of Austria/Czech Republic. Kneipp and Priessnitz used hydrotherapy to heal themselves from major illness: Kneipp from Tuberculosis and Priessnitz from severely broken ribs. Each became internationally famous and attracted thousands of people to seek healing in their respective clinics. Their clinics were made especially famous when they achieved extraordinary rates of healing during Europe's most deadly disease epidemics. Priessnitz treated about 45,000 patients and only 45 (.1%) of them died during outbreaks of the epidemic diseases such as syphilis and smallpox that carried much higher death rates at the time.

Constitutional hydrotherapy evolved out of these traditions when O.G. Carroll, ND pioneered a style of in-office hydrotherapy derived from Kneipp combining the use of hot and cold towels with modern physiotherapy devices.

The Secret of the Towels—Circulating Fluid and Balancing the Nervous System

It may sound simple, but the placement of alternating hot and cold towels onto the torso carries effects to nearly every system in the body, and enhances the overall therapeutic goals of the holistic practitioner. Adding in the physiotherapy both improves and individualizes this treatment further. In a single one hour treatment, constitutional hydrotherapy enhances immunity (via the blood cells in the abdominal lymphatic tissue), improves digestion (by enhancing peristalsis via the nervous system, and increasing enzymatic output of the pancreas, gallbladder, and stomach), cleans and strengthens blood (by improving circulation through and the function of the organs of elimination, and adding in white blood cells), increases lymphatic circulation (via the pumping effect of the hot and cold towels and sine wave machine), and balances the tone of the autonomic nervous system (via the spinal and sensory reflexes caused by the hot and cold water and electrical stimulation).

All of that may sound impressive, and it is, but most important is that it all fits within a clinical theory of Naturopathic medicine that allows its effects to be cumulative, efficient, and targeted to your specific condition. A useful Naturopathic principle holds that health is proportional to both the nutritional quality and cleanliness (low in inflammation, oxidative stress, and maldigesested proteins) of the blood, and to the ability of the body to freely circulate the blood to all parts of the body evenly and efficiently. In other words a blood high in all of the nutritional and constructive elements and low in inflammation that can freely circulate equals health. The inverse of this is that in disease we often see an inflammatory blood of low nutritional quality that is unevenly circulated and therefore creates area of hypoxia and hyperemia (too little and too much blood, respectively).

When you place a hot towel on the skin it brings the blood and other fluids up to the surface in order to maintain the body's homeostasis. When you follow this hot towel with a cool one it causes blood vessel constrict at the surface and the blood moves back down into the organs and center of the body. If you leave the cool towel on the skin the body will eventually move the warm blood back up to the surface in order to warm the towel. Therefore in the simple placement of two alternating towels you've created a oscillatory effect that moves the fluid outward and inward through a full cycle. This not only pushes blood through the liver, skin, kidneys and lungs, and but it restores balance to the abdominal organs via the autonomic nervous system. The last cold towel, in particular, causes a reflex that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which mediates the repair of the body, and digestion of food. It also pushes immune cells into the blood stream via the lymphatic tissue in the abdomen. This combination cleans the blood (via the organs of elimination), and strengthens the blood (via the white blood cells). And because of the action on the autonomic nervous system the body is able to continue the actions of the treatment long after it is completed.

The ability of the holistic practitioner to individualize the treatment lies in concomitant use of herbal medicines during the treatment, prescribed variation in sequence of the towel placement, and targeting specific organs and tissues with the physiotherapy devices.

The Use of Physiotherapy Devices

A preamble: The very idea of using electrical devices as an important part of a “natural” treatment can often rub people the wrong way before they even have a chance to experience it. The key thing to remember is that each of these devices is used in a way that facilitates our body's natural physiology in the same way that the hot and cold towels do. They can be likened to a gentle massage technique, all the while enhancing organ function without the need for two or three people to be working simultaneously. The bottom line: Give these a chance before you pass judgement—they truly work wonders when used correctly. Physiotherapy devices such as Sine Wave, Diathermy, and High Frequency help to individualize the treatment based upon an assessment by the doctor of your organ system functioning.

Sine Wave– The Sine Wave is used with almost every hydrotherapy treatment. It is used in two different places at different stages of the treatment. In the first setting it influences the stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, and liver through a gentle sensory stimulation of the spinal nerves along the back. Then in the second setting it is placed on the abdomen to treat the kidneys through spinal reflexes. In this setting the pads can be placed in different areas to target different organs in the abdomen.

Diathermy– The Short-Wave Diathermy unit is a favorite for patients. This device gives a sense of “velvety-warmth” that is not only soothing but also very therapeutic. It can be used throughout the upper body and provides a deep heating, anti-inflammatory, and anti-spasmodic effect on the target area. The deep heating effect has been shown to increase the number of helpful immune cells in the blood, and can improve the oxygenation and detoxification in the treated area. These are some of the reasons why it is so helpful in all types of upper respiratory infections that occur this time of the year.

High Frequency– This is a unique machine made from a coil that glows a purplish color from a high frequency, high voltage, but low amperage current. It is a very useful adjunctive treatment where there is acute inflammation or spasm. Therefore musculoskeletal pain and cramping, infection, tissue swelling, lymphatic stasis and many dermatological conditions often benefit from the use of the High Frequency device.

The Only Path to Knowledge is Experience

Through experience you will likely come to the only really important fact about constitutional hydrotherapy: it feels good. When combined with an individulized diet and lifestyle plan that provides the right nutrients and keeps inflammation low (so that the detoxification of the hydrotherapy doesn't have to be constantly playing catch-up), these treatments can have a remarkable impact on acute and chronic diseases. Hydrotherapy is an inexpensive, almost universally available, option that reaches truly impressive heights when prescribed by a well-trained holistic or Naturopathic practitioner.