Water has always been central to the spa experience, and hydrotherapy is one of the most essential treatments on modern spa menus. For thousands of years, nature provided the very first hydrotherapy treatments in the form of natural hot springs found in geothermally-active areas of ancient Europe and Asia. While Egyptian royalty soaked in man-made baths infused with fragrant oils and flowers, the ancient Roman and Greek public baths became commonplace when water's therapeutic health benefits were recognized as a "water cure." Japan is also known for its onsen, or bathing facilities, built around natural hot springs.
Hydrotherapy (originally named hydropathy) made its way to Europe and the West at a time when medicine, and the way it was applied to the patient, was becoming increasingly technical in its language (as it remains for many of us today!), with less personal interaction and explanation by the doctors. Patients began to feel uncomfortable with medical language that was so foreign to them until an older and more familiar type of treatment made a comeback. Hydropathy was reintroduced as a more comfortable alternative for certain ailments and grew in popularity from the early 1800s onward.
With the new century, methods that included the plunge bath, the sweat bath, and what we know now as the sitz bath were attracting visitors with various ailments to more and more health-oriented facilities. Eventually, this trend turned more commercial and spawned luxurious water-cure destination resorts across Europe.
Warming It Up
The therapies in Europe that eventually spread to the US enjoyed peak popularity during the Victorian era. The US facilities were clustered mainly in the northeastern part of the country, with the longest-surviving facilities mainly in upstate New York. In the 1850s, methods involving hot water became more widespread and eventually became routine in already-established water-cure facilities that were using cold-water techniques.
The Importance of Vichy, France
One very popular treatment, the Vichy shower, began in Vichy, France. Its thermal-mineral waters had the reputation of miracle cures and coveted beauty benefits, drawing royalty and other rich and famous patrons.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the resorts at Vichy introduced a new treatment where the guest would lay on a wet table and have a steady stream of warm mineral water running the length of the body while two therapists performed massage. This practice has evolved into the multi-head Vichy shower used in today's spas.
Water's Long History of Health Benefits
Back when "hydropathy" was becoming popular as a cure, it was used to treat everything from healing broken ribs by wrapping them with water-soaked bandages, to chronic joint and muscle ailments, to alcoholism and mental illness. In the 1930s, Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Bill Wilson, attributed part of his recovery to hydrotherapy. With the advent of chemical drugs in the 1950s and 60s, hydrotherapy suddenly fell out of favor.
Later in the 20th century, a more natural approach to medicine emerged when revelations of dangerous side effects and sometimes deadly drug interactions were being reported. The concept of the natural health spa blossomed in the 1980s into the multibillion-dollar industry it is today, and hydrotherapy is at its core.
Water is the main ingredient in today's hydrotherapy and pedicure treatments, borrowing an ancient cure to soothe jangled modern nerves and help us look and feel our best.