Medicinal baths

Virtually everybody would acknowledge the general feeling of well-being that a warm bath gives after a tiring day or strenuous exercise. The advocates of medicinal baths would claim that their therapeutic value is even more wide-ranging. Medicinal baths nowadays are usually water-based, although substances such as herbs and minerals are often added. The use of water for healing is known as hydrotherapy. Different treatments depend on a variety of factors such as the temperature of the water, the pressure with which it is applied, or additives in it. Spring water and sea-water are also used for their natural properties.

History and philosophy

The use of bathing as a remedy for, or prevention against, illness is a very old concept. Cleopatra is said to have bathed in asses’ milk to keep her skin beautiful, and the early Roman and Turkish baths were meant to possess healing properties. The use of water as a therapeutic aid was later advanced in Europe by Vincent Priessnitz (1799-1851) and Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897). Priessnitz, a Silesian farmer, emphasized the therapeutic value of cold water. His treatment included sponging down with mountain spring water, plunging into icy baths and ‘winding’, which involved being wrapped in wet towels for long periods of time. This treatment is still used by his followers today.

The basic principle of Father Kneipp, a Dominican priest, was much the same but he developed it further into a whole therapy based on water, sunlight, fresh air and exercise. He recommended walking barefoot in springs, dew or snow if possible, a treatment still used at some European mineral springs.


During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was very common for doctors to send their patients to health resorts known as spas to bathe in, or drink, the water, which was thought to possess medicinal qualities. Most spas are on the site of a natural spring that produces bubbling, heated or mineral-filled water. The mineral matter may include salt, Epsom salt, lime, magnesia, iron, silica, boron, fluorine and even some radioactive substances. The water is usually rain water that has seeped underground through rocks, dissolving minerals on the way, although some springs may contain water which has formed through a chemical process in rocks deep below the earth’s surface. Some of these springs are hot, whereas the water in others has cooled on its journey to the surface. There are many hundreds of spas throughout the world, the best known of which are Vichy in France; Baden-Baden in West Germany; White Sulphur Springs and Hot Springs in the United States; and Bath in south-western England, which was founded and used by the Romans.

Nowadays, the popularity of spas has declined and many are no longer in use. Some, including Bath, are popular tourist attractions,, and others because of the long association of spas with health, provide saunas, massages, steam baths, exercise and diet programmes in purpose-built complexes in, or near, the site of the spa. The water from some mineral springs that are considered especially ‘healthy’ is bottled and sold throughout the world.

Effects of medicinal baths

There are numerous kinds of baths in use today which affect the body in different ways. The active agent in the therapy may be temperature, pressure or substances in the water, or combinations of these. Hot baths are far more common than cold ones, and some treatments aim to cause profuse sweating in order to increase the efficiency of the sweat glands v ;; and to open pores of the skin, which is said to aid cleansing. Cold baths have an invigorating effect, especially if followed by a brisk drying massage. This combination aims to increase the natural warmth of the body by following intense cold with stimulation of the blood flow to the skin and extremities. Alternate immersion in hot and then cold water encourages vascular reaction and is used as part of the treatment for circulatory problems.

Water under pressure is used to massage the body. A very strong jet stimulates the muscles, whereas a gentler flow massages specific conditions such as sprains, or is just a general tonic. A very gentle bubble massage produced by compressed air can be beneficial for fractures.

Other treatments depend for their effect on substances contained in the water being absorbed through the pores of the skin. Additives include herbal preparations, seaweed, peat and sulphur. Sea-water therapy (thalassotherapy) relies for its beneficial effects on the properties and salts it contains naturally.

Forms of hydrotherapy

The most common form of hydrotherapy is underwater massage or water-impact therapy. The patient lies in a bath while his or her body is massaged by a strong jet of water. Because the body becomes virtually weightless when nearly immersed in water, the resultant state of relaxation allows the water to have a greater effect on the muscles. The whirlpool bath (Jacuzzi) is a different type of massage and is less strenuous than conventional underwater massage. A variant on the Jacuzzi is the aerated bath in which compressed air is forced through small holes in wood or metal to create masses of bubbles.

The sitz-bath is an odd contraption in two sections. The person sits in a shortened hip-bath with his or her legs dangling over the side. Alongside the bath is another tub into which the person puts his or her legs. One tub has cold water in it, the other, hot. After a short period of sitting one way round, the person gets out and changes round so that the part of his or her body which was in hot water is now in cold, and vice versa. This is repeated several times. Turkish baths involve sitting in a room full of very hot air until the skin becomes damp, and then going into an even hotter room in which the person perspires profusely and usually with an accompanying feeling of calm and ‘weightlessness’. Afterwards the body is massaged and the skin rubbed and cleansed to remove impurities.

A healing bath of a very different sort is the clay or mud bath. The mud contains all kinds of chemical substances, both organic and inorganic, which act upon the skin, but also pass through the skin into the body and are thought to have healing effects. The mud contains mostly sodium, sulphur, copper, calcium or magnesium compounds and aromatic oils, organic or inorganic acids and vegetable-mould compounds. Clay or mud also has a thermic or mechanical action upon the body. These baths are especially useful for rheumatic, respiratory and sometimes skin diseases. Also worth mentioning are salt-water baths which are used, for example, by individuals with respiratory and rheumatic complaints; sulphur baths which have a temperature of 35-37°C, and are used for all kinds of disorders including skin diseases; and oxygen baths which have a very relaxing and positive effect upon skin, muscles and joints. Furthermore, there are numerous natural health springs, which produce water that is claimed to possess health-giving qualities.

Which disorders do baths help?

Modern practitioners of hydrotherapy make no general claims but specify ways of using it which may benefit various conditions.

For example, seaweed, Epsom salt, peat and sulphur can be added to hot baths to treat conditions such as rheumatism, arthritis, poor circulation, tiredness and general aches and pains. Some herbal mixtures are recommended for nervous complaints. Alternate hot and cold baths are used as a method of reducing inflammation or to increase local circulation. The gentler massages are useful for treating paralysis, fractures and some types of wounds. The sitz-bath is used for illness affecting the lower abdomen, such as intestinal and genital problems and also for improving circulation. A sauna may help to alleviate colds, influenza, sinusitis and respiratory conditions.