The medicinal use of water treatments

The medicinal use of water treatments and the influence this has on modern spas

This paper will be looking at the medicinal uses of water though out the ages and how the modern spa industry has adapted these treatments for the modern spa setting. The areas looked at will be the beliefs that used to be held about the use of water and if these beliefs have changed,

The word spa comes from Latin and is the acronym of "salus per aquam or "health from water. Spa is also the name of a small village in Belgium where the hot mineral springs were used by Roman soldiers to treat wounds and aching muscles after battle. Bathing was also used as an important networking tool by the Roman Empire. Even before the Bath mineral spring was discovered, Roman citizens bathed daily in the baths, many where public baths and were built and primarily used by the roman soldiers. By 43 A.D. citizens of Rome began to view baths as a way of providing rest and relaxation, it was also seen as a place of solace to all. Pure inside out (2007)

A typical visitor's Roman bath started in the changing rooms, where the clothes would be removed in small cubicles leaving their slaves to guard them. Next would be the unctuarium where various oils would be rubbed into the skin, exercise would then be taken in one of the Palaestra or exercise yards. Then on to the warm room or tepidarium, an area in which to lie around and socialises while attendants served food and drinks. The tepidarium was generally used as a transitional area in which to prepare for the caldarium or hot room. The caldarium is the same as a sauna or steam bath, with heated floors allowing the bathers to sweat while scraping the skin removing the oils to clean the skin. After the caldarium, it would be time to move on to the frigidarium or cold room containing pools of fresh water used for swimming or dipping. Which were used to cool off allowing the skins pores to close, they were able to cool off and allow the skin pores to close. After the frigidarium oils and perfumes would then be massaged into the skin. Pure inside out (2007)

The Romans also used their great knowledge of technology and architecture to add grandeur to the bath houses. With lofty vaulted ceilings and round domes, supported by large columns and piers rose over enormous halls. Large window also flooded the areas with light. The buildings had with mosaic floors, stucco, multitudes of statues and opus sectile ornamentation decorated the interior of the bath houses. Yaron (2000)

About water treatments used now comparing them to the above

Taking the waters was a popular treatment for a wide range of diseases in classical times. The Greeks preferred to bath in fresh water from natural sources, and also bathed in the sea thalassotherapy. Originally, only the wealthy were able to bath in private baths, but soon after public baths were built making it accessible to all. The baths were considered to be a sacred place and were dedicated to several gods. Tubergen and Linden (2002)

In Homeric times, bathing was mainly used to cleanse and for hygienic purposes. By the time of Hippocrates, bathing was thought of as more than a simple hygienic measure; it was believed to be healthy and beneficial for most diseases. Hippocrates put forward the hypothesis that the cause of all diseases starts with an imbalance in the fluids of the body. To regain balance a change of habits was advised, this included bathing, perspiration, walking, and massages. Tubergen and Linden (2002)

Following the Greeks, the Romans built their own baths over mineral and thermal springs. Often the reason for the development of such a spa resort was a military presence. The Spas were not only used for treatment of wounded soldiers but also as rest centres for healthy soldiers. In a difference to the Greeks, the Romans believed the baths to be more important than the gymnastics, where as the Greeks took the waters after physical exercises. Besides the uses of cleansing, exercises, socialising, relaxation, and worship, medical treatment was also being applied extensively within the spas. The Spa treatments consisted of applying water to afflicted areas of the body, immersing the whole body in the water, and drinking large quantities of water. Tubergen and Linden (2002)

A Greek physician named Asclepiades, practising in Rome, introduced a general form of hydrotherapy and drinking cures as treatments within the spa. His recommendations included bathing for both therapeutic and preventative purposes. Another physician called Pliny the Elder assigned alternative assets and suggestions for cure to different types of waters. Tubergen and Linden (2002)

Even though there is a high popularity for spa therapies, there is little reported scientific evidence for its efficacy. Ten years ago, well documented records on spa treatments for lead poisoning during the 18th and 19th century in the bath spas were reviewed, Paralysis caused by chronic lead intoxication was a common problem , due to the widespread use of lead within the in household, cosmetics, food colorants, salts for medicinal use, and wine. The course of treatments used included bathing, drinking cures, diet, and purges. Patients who attended the Bath spa came from all over England, and had usually been having treatments for their paralysis elsewhere, however without success. But many of these incurable patients found themselves cured after their stay in Bath. Tubergen and Linden (2002)

Holistics online (1998 2009) state that "Hydrotherapy is the use of water in the treatment of disease hydrothermal therapy additionally uses its temperature effects, as in hot baths, saunas, and wraps.

The healing and recuperative properties of hydrotherapy are based on its thermal effects. It uses the body's reaction to hot and cold stimulus, the prolonged application of heat, the water pressure exerted and the sensation it gives. The nerves impulses felt within the skin are carried deeper into the body, where they are influential in stimulating the immune system, impact on the production of stress hormones, speeding up the circulation and digestive systems, and lessens sensitivity to pain. Holistics online (1998 2009)

Heat soothes and quiets the body's systems; it slows down the activity of the internal organs. In contrast Cold invigorates the body systems stimulating and increasing internal activity. When the body is submerged in a bath, a pool, or a whirlpool a kind of weightlessness experienced. And the constant pull of gravity is removed from the body. Water also has a hydrostatic effect. It gives a massage-like feeling from the waters constant movement gently kneading the body. The waters motion stimulates the touch receptors within the skin, boosting the blood circulation and releasing tense muscles. Holistics online (1998 2009)

Modern spas treatments are used for the benifical effects they have on the whole body. The treatments and environment within the spa are created to induce a mental and physical sense of well being. Nordmann (2005)

Hydrotherapy treatments offered by spas include, spa pools, air is passed though small openings in the bath forcing it into the water, the thermal and mechanical stimulation causes increased blood and lymphatic flow raising the body temperature causing the pulse to rise, hydro baths, a bath fitted with water jets which massage the soft tissues of the body a hose is often added for manual treatments. Flotation treatments (wet and dry) during flotation the autonomic nervous system is affected, giving a calming effect on the body allowing the pulse to slow and relaxation of the muscles. Saunas are a dry heat treatment, the air is heated which promotes sweating releasing toxins from the body, and it can also relive respiratory congestion and allows the muscles to relax. Steam baths and rooms produce the same effects as the saunas but may have herbal essences to create an aroma, historical examples of these are the roman caldarium and the Turkish hamman. Nordmann (2005)

Further uses for spas in medicinal settings are being reviewed all the time one such use is in the rehabilitation of people with alcohol and drug problems. The use of Water cure centres caught the attention of alcoholics in the mid 19th century; these institutions were used as a place where alcoholics could use to help cure them while hiding their true condition. Vague descriptions such as neuralgia or nervous exhaustion were used to explain their conditions. Because these water cure centres required those who attended to abstain from stimulants such as alcohol, tobacco and tea. The facilities were used as a place to detoxify the body. Wright (2006)

Hydrotherapy used in the treatment of alcoholism can be traced back to the mid 19th century water cure centres and asylums, and on to the early 20th century private sanitariums and insane asylums. The treatments provided includes steam baths, hot, cold and neutral baths, needle spray showers hot and cold water sponging; douches; wet packs and substantial water drinking. Wright (2006)

Wet flotation is usually preformed in an enclosed chamber filled with 10 inches of warm s solution of Epson salts and water, the solution is so dense that when a person is placed in it they float on the surface of the water. The experience of floating could be used to aid the withdrawal symptoms in addicts. It is argued that the floating reduces the levels of anxiety related bio chemicals such as norepinephrine which are released in large quantities during the withdrawal period. Floatation tanks are used by many drink and drug addicts to relieve anxiety and tremors associated with the process of withdrawal. Floatation can also be used during the post-withdrawal state to aid addicts in not returning to their habit. During post-withdrawal alcoholics and drug addicts are unable to produce the endorphins which are needed to experience pleasure and therefore by increasing the endorphins, floatation enables the feeling of pleasure to be experienced. Wright (2006)

If this idea comes into effect spas could offer treatments to local substance abusers giving them the opportunity to receive a drug free treatment plan which is person centred and non-pharmacological. Wright (2006)

Modern day spas are well known worldwide as places of regeneration and rest, using a holistic approach to achieve mind, body and soul harmony. They are seen as places where a person can achieve some form of personal change. However spas are also concerned with addressing serious medical problems along side providing leisure and relaxation. The combination of therapies offered and experiences shared are therefore endless. Spas are seen in as a two tier market, those with natural waters and those without natural waters. Some insist that natural water is a most important part of any spa, a place where the therapeutic treatments are provided using the healing waters. At one definition was workable. However there has been a remarkable reduction in the application of water in therapies provided in places calling themselves spas. Giving cause as to whether water should be included in the definition of the word spa. A modern day definition which has been suggested is "A Spa is a place that you resort to in order to alleviate lifestyle problems and ailments in a convivial atmosphere." Osborne (2002)

The use of water therapy in modern day spas has changed since the medicinal uses of water were discovered. The onus is no longer on the use of water as a treatment to heal ills but as a way of relaxing and socialising. However the Romans did also use their baths as a place to relax and network. The treatments now offered though are extremely similar to those offered by the Romans within their baths. The uses of oils and steam to detoxify the body are extremely similar and the use of heated pools closely resembles our modern hydrotherapy baths. If the use of spas to aid addiction rehabilitation comes to happen then the use of water within the spas will be going back to their roots in medicinal benefits


  • Holistics online (1998 2009) hydrotherapy available at [online] accessed on 15.11.2009
  • Osborne b. (2002) The History of the word SPA and its relationship with water available at [online] accessed on 17.11.2009
  • Pure inside out (2007) the roman bath available at [online] accessed on 15.11.2009
  • nordmann L. (2005) professional beauty therapy, the official guide to level 3, 2nd ed, London, Thompson learning
  • Tubergen A. and Linden S. (2002) a brief history of spa therapy, Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 61, pg 273-275
  • Wright b. (2006) New Applications for Spas - drug and alcohol abuse rehabilitation available at [online] accessed on 17.11.2009
  • Yaron z. The roman bath as a Jewish institution: another look at the encounter between Judaism and the Greco-roman culture, journal for the study of Judaism: in the Persian Hellenistic & roman period, vol 1, issue 4, pg 416 447.

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