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Hydrotherapy means healing with water in its three forms: solid, liquid and vapor. It comprises dozens of forms of treatment, including washing, wraps, affusions and baths. Water works as a natural stimulus, increasing energy and resistance to disease, and improving body awareness.

Hydrotherapy means healing with water in its three forms: solid, liquid and vapor. It comprises dozens of forms of treatment, including washing, wraps, affusions and baths.

Water works as a natural stimulus, increasing energy and resistance to disease, and improving body awareness. Since human beings are warm-blooded, we react very sensitively to changes in temperature. These reactions activate all the vital body systems to equalize and stabilize body functions. Cool or cold water stimulates the body and increases the use of oxygen in the cells. Warm or hot water dilates blood vessels, improving blood circulation which improves the transport of oxygen to the brain and speeds the elimination of toxins. Hydrotherapy will achieve not only a well-balanced body but also a healthy, alert mind.

Water has been used for healing since ancient times. Monuments from the age of the ancient Assyrians, Egyptians and Babylonians bear witness to the importance of water. The Bible gives strict instructions for regular bathing as well as using water for cleansing and atonement. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a highly developed bath culture which played a role in the maintenance of good health and healing. The Romans refined the bath culture, emphasizing the healing powers of natural springs. Many Roman baths can still be found today. Spas in Asia Minor existed as early as 500 BC and offered hydrotherapy, massage and gymnastics. Modern hot tubs, saunas, swimming pools and the morning shower ritual continue the ancient traditions.

Father Kneipp's Hydrotherapy

Father Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) was the most famous advocate of hydrotherapy. Kneipp (pronounced Ka-nipe) therapy comprises close to 120 different uses of water. His treatment consists of actively training the blood vessels and the whole body to function properly on their own. The variety of water treatments toughen the body against wind and weather. Cold and warm water are used, often with the addition of herbs.

Modern research has confirmed the effectiveness of Kneipp treatments. Many spas and clinics in Europe offer Kneipp therapy with highly trained specialists, who carefully select, for each patient, the most appropriate treatments and monitor progress.

Natural stimuli such as forests and the sound of birds singing are increasingly vanishing from our society. At the same time, we are subjected to a huge inundation of artificial stimuli (noise, light, radiation, environmental pollution, the media, and stress). The human body has learned to cope with natural stimuli through a system of equalization and regulation. If these natural stimuli are missing, the body loses the ability to adapt to changing situations. In Kneipp's opinion, this is the cause of many illnesses.

Basic Principles of Hydrotherapy

  1. Never use cold water on a body without warming the body first, through exercise or warm foot bath.
  2. Empty the bowels and bladder before beginning applications.
  3. After cold application, do not dry parts of the body but wipe off with the hand, except for areas with large concentration of hair, areas exposed to air (head and hands) and between the toes.
  4. Dry parts of the body after warm and hot applications.
  5. Reheat the body ten to fifteen minutes after cold applications.
  6. Follow warm baths, three-quarters or full baths with a cold application and a half hour to one hour of bedrest.
  7. Generally, follow short treatments with active exercise.
  8. Leave an interval of one to four hours between applications, and between applications and meals. Intervals depend entirely on the application and the bodily reactions they create.
  9. Do not use alcohol or tobacco before and after applications.
  10. Use cold applications with acute disorders, and warm applications with chronic disorders.
  11. Vary treatments so the body does not get used to the stimulus. That is, treat the upper body one day and the lower body the next day.
  12. Give each treatment with utmost concentration.


Kneipp treatments are given with cold, cool, warm and hot temperatures. The greater the difference between the area being treated and the water temperature, the greater the stimulus. With cold water, a minimum temperature difference of 50°F (10°C) between the skin and the water is needed to produce a good reaction. If alternate treatments are given, always change from warm to cold. Brisk changes from hot to cold can create negative reactions. Treatments with increasing temperature should begin with lukewarm and slowly rise to hot

Hydrotherapy Techniques

It was important to Kneipp to lead a simple and natural lifestyle. As such, he recommended water exercises to strengthen the body, such as water stepping and dew walking.

Of the over 120 different treatments with water, the main ones used regularly in clinics and easily used for self-treatment are washings, inhalations, wraps, affusions and baths.

Dew Walking

Dew walking relieves mild arterial circulatory disorders, venous disturbances in the legs (varicose veins) and morning grumpiness by promoting blood circulation and strengthening the veins, muscles and immune system. Start this exercise with warm feet. Walk over dew-moistened grass for about five minutes. Dry off just between the toes and warm up the feet immediately afterward with warm socks and movement. This exercise is a great "pick-me-up" for those with sore muscles and general sluggishness

Water Stepping

Water stepping calms in the evenings and refreshes during the day. This therapy is particularly effective for mild circulatory problems, sensitivity to the changes in weather, excessive foot perspiration, susceptibility to infection, mild hypertension, vascular headaches, and difficulty sleeping. Water stepping strengthens veins, calms the nervous system and stimulates metabolism.

Step bare legged into water until just below the knee. Use a large bucket, bathtub, fountain or the ocean for this purpose. Walk back and forth, always lifting one leg out of the water. Walk like a stork, lifting each leg completely out of the water. The change between the cold water and the warm air will produce a healing effect. Ten to fifteen seconds of stepping might be all you need. Stay in the water only as long as you remain comfortable. You can even try walking barefoot in the snow (high-stepping all the time). Immediately wipe off the water, dry between the toes, put on socks and warm up the feet by walking about.


Washings are the simplest and mildest form of hydrotherapy. During a washing, a cloth is used to cover the body with a fine film of water. The temperature of the water is different from that of the skin, so a mild stimulus is achieved. It also relaxes muscles, promotes sleep, regulates blood pressure, stimulates metabolism, activates immune system and improves circulation. Wash-ings can be cold, cool, alternating warm and cold, or hot. Alternating warm and hot washings can be used for circulatory disorders. Con-trasting warm and cold washings can help ward off disease. Apply washings to one part of the body only, or combine them for a complete body washing. After a washing, keep warm in bed and rest for thirty to forty-five minutes. No perspiration should be left after the washing.

Upper Body Washing

Fold a wet cloth into four, and hold in the left hand. Wash the surface of the right hand, up the exterior surface of the arm and back, over the shoulder down the interior surface of the arm up to the armpit, which is wiped twice. Turn the cloth over and wash the left side. Rinse out the cloth out and wipe the neck from the right to the left side. The trunk is then wiped from the shoulders, up and down, four times, from right to left. With female patients, turn the cloth over and wipe the area below the breasts. The back is washed in the same fashion.

Lower Body Washing


Fold a wet cloth in half. Wipe from the right foot up the side of the leg to the hip, then down the front of the leg. Wash up the inside of the calf and thigh, wiping the groin area twice. Rinse the cloth and use the same procedure for the left leg.


Fold a wet cloth in half. Wash the right foot, up the outside of the calf and thigh to the hip and down the back. Work up the inside calf and thigh, wiping the crease below the buttock towards the hip twice. Rinse the cloth and use the same procedure for the left leg. Rinse the cloth again and wipe the right buttock in a circular motion, then the left buttock. Turn the cloth, then wipe the soles of the feet, first right, then left.

Abdominal Washing

Lie on your back with bent knees and wash the abdomen in a clockwise motion twenty to forty times. To strengthen the effect, leave the moist cloth on the abdomen covered by a dry towel. Apply in the evening to induce sleep.

Extremities Washing

Extremities washing is mostly used to decrease a fever. Cold water constricts the blood vessels, and stimulates the nervous system. The rapid reaction that follows is the increase of heat production. Only the part being washed is uncovered, rapidly washed, then recovered. The next washing is applied, once the previous part is dried.

A series consists of five to seven washings. The goal of this treatment is to induce perspiration. After approximately ten minutes of perspiring, rinse the body, change the bedding, if necessary, and rest. Perspiration helps normalize body temperatures. If no perspiration results after the first series, a second treatment can follow after two hours. For optimal results, apply between five and seven washings in the morning, when the body is still warm from sleeping and the nervous system is active.


For quick relief of a stubborn head cold or sinus infection, use steam inhalations. Repeated inhalations can prevent head colds from becoming persistent sinus infections or can help stubborn infections heal more quickly and completely.

In most instances, steam inhalations combine aromatherapy and water therapy. Inhaling the fresh aroma of ocean salt water or a pine forest in the mountains is also therapeutic for the sinuses and lungs. Ocean air also provides mineral salts and trace elements from sea water. Decades ago, tuberculosis patients were sent to the mountains, and asthma patients to the seaside, for this purpose. Breathing exercises themselves are excellent conditioning for the upper airways and lungs, and keep illnesses at bay.

Today, steam inhalations are highly recommended for all upper respiratory problems, including infections and persistent, recurring conditions. While the modern humidifier is used to keep air moist during a respiratory infection or asthma is also excellent, steam inhalations with herbals are more effective.

As the steam loosens the thick, tough mucus in the sinuses, bronchial tubes and lungs, the tiny muscles lining the bronchial tubes relax, easing breathing and coughing. Dry air passages are moistened, and loosened mucus is eliminated easier by coughing or blowing the nose. Steam inhalations also stimulate circulation in the facial skin, as well as in the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract. For this reason, inhalations are used to open the pores in the treatment of acne and other skin disorders, and to maintain general skin health. Steam inhalations actually increase circulation to the entire head, providing relief of headaches and migraines. Stop the inhalation if you feel dizzy. Those people with high blood pressure should refrain from inhalations of hot steam altogether.

For a facial steaming or inhalation, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add sea salt or a few drops of herbal oil such as camomile, eucalyptus or peppermint, and bend your upper body over the water. Use a towel to drape over the head to guide the steam onto the face. If you prefer a special aromatherapy steamer, take extra precautions to clean it thoroughly, since bacteria can easily breed in the warm, moist environment. For inhalations, breathe the steam in deeply but comfortably. Continue for ten to thirty minutes and end with a splash of cold water over the face. Lie down and relax for at least fifteen minutes, preferably longer. To heal an upper respiratory infection, it is recommended to use a longer inhalation and lie down for an hour or more to promote sweating and hasten the removal of toxins from the body. To avoid getting chilled, keep warm indoors for at least an hour after an inhalation.


A Kneipp wrap is the envelopment of a body part with a well-wrung out wet cloth followed by two dry cloths.

Wraps are applied cold, cool or hot. They produce, retain or remove heat and through the body's temperature regulation mechanisms, achieve internal stability. External reactions are simultaneously produced in the treated areas. People with severe circulatory disorders should use wraps with caution.

Many people feel apprehensive or claustrophobic in a full body wrap. If this is the case, you can leave the arms out or use a smaller wrap. Also, you can begin with warm temperatures and gradually increase to cooler temperatures. A person might not be able to warm up in a cold wrap if the inside layer is too wet, if the body was not warm enough to start, if the wrap is not tight enough or if the person is particularly weak.

If the person is not able to warm up, remove the wrap after twenty minutes and use a warm water bottle. Do not repeat the wrap until the next day.

Heat Removal Wrap

Reduce fever through the application of cold water, clay water, as well as ice, cold packs, curd and clay wraps. An intense removal of heat will appear which slowly decreases due to the gradual reheating of the wrap.

Heat removal can only occur with a certain temperature. This necessitates the removal of the wrap before it has reheated. The wet cloth should be wrung out only slightly. The cold water is meant to absorb as much heat as possible.

A mild anesthetic effect is possible, which is especially helpful in acute inflammation. It is usually necessary to repeat the application several times.

Heat Producing Wrap

An increase in heat production, through an increase in metabolism, is produced by applying a cold wrap over an extended period (forty-five to seventy-five minutes). The initial, short cold stimulation (five to ten minutes) results in a removal of heat. During the heat removal phase, the veins constrict, respiration and pulse rate increase and muscles become toned.

The body then produces heat to stabilize temperature. This reaction leads to a warming of the wrap and improves the circulation. Respiration decreases, lowering the body's pulse rate and blood pressure.

Increasing circulation promotes the removal of metabolic wastes and increases oxygen supply to the cells. Wraps also produce a sedative effect on the nervous system and the psyche, when applied for a longer time.

Perspiration Inducing Wrap

The perspiration-inducing wrap is applied cold and differs from the heat-producing wrap by staying on longer, that is, until sweating is achieved and then for an additional half hour. Follow a perspiration-inducing wrap with a washing with lukewarm water. Teas (especially elder blossom and/or linden) can be given before and during treatment to help with sweating and to provide warmth if for chills. Hot water bottles or other heat sources can be packed around the body for further warmth. Once you are well-covered, the window can be opened slightly.

This treatment is very sedating to the nervous system and the psyche. Sweat-producing wraps stimulate an increased elimination of poisons through the skin. Since minerals and liquids are also expelled in the sweating process, they must be replenished by drinking tea, fruit juices or mineral water.


Affusion involves the application of a stream of water without pressure to coat the body or part of the body. If using your shower, remove the shower head or hold a washcloth over the nozzle to create an even flow. This treatment can be used with cold, temperate or warm water. An alternating affusion consists of a warm, followed by a cold application, normally there are two rotations. Should a stronger stimulation be required, three alternating applications are possible. To reduce the stimulation, apply only once. Repeated application is normally used only with cold water.


The prolonged application to a certain part of the body is called holding. The application should not be concentrated on a specific point, but rather move slightly. As a rule, the application remains in the general area to be treated. (For example, not more than four inches above the knee, for a knee therapy.) Hold a cold affusion from five to eight seconds. With alternating applications, prolong the warm part of the treatment.

Affusion after Bath

Apply a cold stream of water without holding in one uninterrupted stroke. Treat only the part of the body that has been warmed by the bath. Before this treatment and after a full bath, cool the forehead and heart area first.

Warm-up Affusions

Begin with lukewarm water and finish with the highest acceptable temperature. Treat a specific part of the body until the skin becomes red from increased blood flow to the area.

Pressure Affusion

Application of pressure provides a much stronger stimulation and uses a higher temperature in the warm application. Pressure draws blood to the surface to be cooled. This affusion can be applied as cold, hot or alternating treatments. The intensity of the pressure can be varied during the application. The result of a high pressure affusion is much more intensive if combined with a herb bath.


With a short up and down wrist movement of the nozzle, it is possible to achieve a whip effect with the stream of water hitting the body. In the alternating applications, only one warm and then cold part is used. In the warm section of this treatment, the whip action is not used. In the cold section, only a short application of the whip action is required.

Knee Rinse

A cold knee rinse lowers blood pressure and promotes circulation in the veins. The cold knee rinse also alleviates headaches, varicose veins and reduces body temperature. Do not use when menstruating, with sciatica pains, bladder infections, or when cold and shivering. Stop immediately and rest if feeling faint.
Start your cold rinse on the right side of the body. Point the water jet along the outside of the leg, up to the knee, hold the nozzle for a few seconds just above the knee, then go down along the inside of the leg. The water should not splash, but just form a water film on the skin.

Thigh Rinse

The cold thigh rinse is used for varicose veins, slight circulation problems in the legs, sleeping problems, general nervousness, irritability, and stress.

Legs and feet should be warm when starting and room temperature should not exceed 68°F (20°C).

Start on the back of the body. Point the water jet at your right foot. Guide the nozzle along the outside of your leg up to your hip and keep it there for a few seconds. Then, guide the water along the inside of the leg back to the foot and switch to the left leg without pausing. Move the water along the outside of your left leg up to your buttocks. Keep the water there for a few seconds, moving right and then left again just below your sciatic nerve.

Continue with the front of your body. Start again with your right leg, switch to the left, end with a short rinse of the soles of your feet.

After the rinse just shake off the water. Put on a jogging suit and warm socks over the still-damp skin and warm up in bed. Still better would be bicycling, walking, or similar exercise until completely warmed up.

Avoid this treatment if you suffer from low blood pressure. If your legs begin to turn blue, stop immediately, cover yourself with a blanket, place a hot water bottle on your feet and rest. If you feel cold during the application, change to warm water.

This treatment leaves a wonderful, warm sensation not only in the legs, hips and stomach, but all over the body.


Full Bath

Cold full baths 50-68°F (10-20°C) for five to ten seconds stimulate the metabolism, draw out fever, and increase circulation and skin tone. They are especially recommended for increasing immunity and fighting obesity. Patients who are weak or anemic, or suffer from heart disease, arteriosclerosis or infectious lung disease should not take cold full baths.

Warm full baths 95-102°F (35-39°C) for up to twenty minutes are nerve-calming and are enhanced by adding herbal infusions. A warm full bath is recommended for insomnia, nervousness, neuralgia, sciatica, osteoarthritis and joint stiffness. Finish a full bath with a short cold shower.

Hot full baths 104-111°F (40-44°C) for ten to fifteen minutes are recommended for rheumatic conditions, kidney ailments and to promote sweating. Keep temperature constant by adding hot water as necessary and rest in bed for a half hour to an hour afterwards. When fatigued, a short dip in a hot bath can be as invigorating as a short cold bath. Hot baths are not recommended for people who have circulation problems, heart problems, high blood pressure or arteriosclerosis, as they will cause the heart to race.

Half Baths

Half baths mean that water reaches only to the hip. Half baths are less strenuous than a full bath for people with poor circulation.

The Increasing Temperature Half Bath

Cold and shivering people will quickly warm up in a half bath with increasing temperature. With the increasing temperature, veins in the skin enlarge slowly, carrying the heat from inside the body to the surface. This causes the body temperature to drop slowly. In addition, the enlarged vessels will induce sweating, which contributes to body detoxification.

Partial Bath

A partial bath is a practical treatment for an inflammation or injury to one part of the body. Immerse the affected part in 95-105°F (35-41°C) water for about ten to fifteen minutes.


Sitz-baths are used to treat problems in the pelvic area. For a hot sitz-bath, fill a large bucket half full with 95-105°F (35-41°C) water and sit in it with only the lower abdominal and genital area being submerged and the legs and upper part of the body raised out of the water. For a cold sitz-bath, place only a few inches of cool infusion (not below 68°F/20°C) in the bucket.

Cold Water Genital Rub

To strengthen the reproductive organs and for general detoxification, apply the cold water genital rub. Sit on a narrow board that is placed over a tub of 53°F (12°C) water, with feet in the water. Dip a cotton cloth in the water and gently rub over the genitals. Use water generously. Continue for ten minutes, then dry genital area well and rest for one hour in bed.

Anal or Genital Steam Bath

This bath is used to disinfect and heal the genital area, for inflammations of the bladder or for older men who have difficulty urinating.

You will need a large container for the water. Cover one half with a narrow board for sitting or place the container under a mesh seat or wicker chair. Use two to three quarts of hot water and two to three handfuls of herbs to create an herbal infusion. Pour the boiling herbal infusion into the container. Keep your body warm with a large towel which also should cover the container to prevent steam from escaping. Sit for five to ten minutes, until no more steam rises. Keep warm and rest in bed for at least twenty minutes afterwards.

Foot Baths

Foot baths have a special place in Kneipp therapy. They regulate warmth, promote healthy blood circulation, and have a soothing, healing effect.

The Increasing Temperature Foot Bath

This foot bath is suitable for treatment at the beginning of a cold; it warms the whole body and promotes blood circulation in the nose and throat. Do not use if you suffer from varicose veins or heart/circulation problems.

Put a bucket or high footbath in your bathtub, and pour in one quart of hot thyme tea and three cups of stinging nettle tea. Add cold water until the skin temperature reaches 91°F (33°C).

Place your feet in the tub. For the next fifteen to twenty minutes, increase the water temperature in stages by adding water as hot as you can stand it (maximum 107°F/42°C).

Afterwards, dry your feet, wrap them into a soft towel or put on warm socks. Lie down and rest at least fifteen to thirty minutes.

After the increasing temperature foot bath, your feet and legs will show a slightly red hue. Your body will be suffused with warmth and a feeling of well-being. Breathing will be freer and easier.

The Cold Foot Bath

Use when overheated, having problems falling asleep, or when you finish exercising. It is also good for headaches, varicose veins, tired legs, or sprains or pains in the ankle area.

Fill the foot bath or sink with cold tap water and immerse your feet. Keep them in the water for no longer than fifteen seconds to one minute.

After the foot bath, shake off the water and remove the excess with your hands. Do not pat your feet dry. Put on warm socks and keep warm by resting in bed.

The Warm Foot Bath

This treatment stimulates the blood circulation and relaxes the lower body organs. It soothes and heals kidney and bladder infections, induces sleep for people with a tendency to have cold feet, and generally stabilizes the nervous system. Use herbal supplements of your choice with the warm foot bath. (For more information, see Section 7, Healing Herbs.)

Use the warm foot bath only if you do not suffer from high blood pressure. With vein problems, keep the water no more than ankle deep.

Proceed in similar fashion as with the cold foot bath, but use water with a temperature of 96-100°F (36-38°C). Keep feet in water for ten to fifteen minutes.

Finish with a quick, cold shower up to the knee, starting with your right leg, or take a short, cold foot bath.

After the warm foot bath, cold feet will warm up, the circulation in the legs will improve, and your whole body will feel comfortably warm.

Alternate Foot Bath

This is one of the most widely-prescribed treatments for tired legs, circulation problems, headaches or insomnia. Place two large containers or medium-sized garbage cans side by side. Fill one with warm water of approximately 86-104°F (30-40°C) and the other with cold water. Put your feet into the warm water for five minutes. The water level should rise about three-quarters of the way up your legs. Then, change into the cold water, putting your right leg in first. Exhale when you first get into the cold water. Count ten seconds and change back to the warm water for another five minutes, then move to the cold for ten seconds again. Dry your feet, put on socks and take a brisk walk for ten minutes or go to bed right away. Always keep feet and legs warm after treatment.

Alternate Arm Bath

If you have two sinks side by side, you can use an alternate hot and cold arm bath procedure. In Germany, this treatment is often used to stabilize blood pressure and to relieve headaches, angina and nervous conditions.

Clay Packs

Not to be confused with dirt or mud that you find on the ground, healing clay (or mud) has been sterilized and specially prepared, has the ability to absorb toxins and can be taken internally for diarrhea and food poisoning. It is also applied to wounds, itching skin, eczema, pus and inflammation, varicose veins, insect bites, rheumatic illnesses, neuralgia, strains, external tumors, liver and kidney problems.

Mix clay (it usually comes in powder form) with a little bit of purified water to form a thick paste. Place directly on affected area about half an inch thick and cover with a cloth. Leave clay on until it is dry, then gently dab off with a clean damp cloth, or shower. Mix clay with St. John's wort oil if you want to leave it on the skin overnight. The oil helps the clay stay supple and does not dry out or crack the skin.

Another method is to dissolve a tablespoon of clay in a cup of water. Dip a cloth into the mixture, wring it out slightly, then place the damp cloth on the affected area and cover with a dry cloth.



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