Health professionals are increasingly recommending hydrotherapy to treat pain, inflammation and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Just six weeks of water therapy improves mobility and function in people with osteoarthritis.

For patients with RA, hydrotherapy can improve quality of life, as indicated in a study published in the Arthritis Care & Research journal. Patients who received hydrotherapy reported significant improvement when assessed using the Arthritis Impact Measurement Scales 2 (AIMS2) questionnaire, which helps determine the effectiveness of arthritis treatment. Here are just a few of the results the patients noted at a three-month follow-up

  • Their physical and emotional states were improved.
  • Their belief that their pain "spontaneously occurred" was lower, which improved their confidence at managing their own symptoms.
  • Joint tenderness and range of knee movement (in female patients) were better when compared to other treatments.

If you would like to experience some of these benefits, hydrotherapy might be for you.  The basics of these age-old techniques are highlighted below.

What it is

There are several types of hydrotherapy using cold or warm water in a tub, pool, tank or sauna. However, a popular version recommended for arthritis involves special exercises performed in a pool with water heated to a toasty temperature - usually between 91.4°F and 98.6°F (33°C and 37°C). These pools are often located in hospital physiotherapy facilities.

Being able to swim isn't mandatory. The pool is shallow and a physiotherapist and assistant monitor patients. You can also use buoyancy aids if you feel uneasy in a pool.

Are there any side effects?

No. It is considered completely safe for treating arthritis and other musculoskeletal disorders.  

Who shouldn't receive hydrotherapy

Several conditions can rule out hydrotherapy for some people: high or low blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, chest infections, incontinence, skin infections, stomach problems, viruses, or wounds. It's not suitable if you receive kidney dialysis.

Also, the American Cancer Society doesn't recommend it if you are frail, elderly, very young, diabetic, or have poor sensation or a poor circulation condition such as Reynaud's disease. Speak to your doctor to make sure it's a safe option for you.

The height of hydrotherapy

Therapeutic bathing in hot mineral springs is called balneotherapy. If you're fortunate enough to live near one (or can travel to one) indulge in the warm, soothing waters that are loaded with healthy, detoxifying minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron. Hot springs have been recognized for their ability to treat digestive problems, skin diseases and arthritis.