The benefits of hot and cold therapy go back further than your mother’s advice. In fact, you would have to go back to ancient Rome and Greece. In the time of Hippocrates, bathing was considered to be more than hygienic; it was beneficial. According to his hypothesis, diseases were caused by an imbalance in bodily fluids and regaining that balance could be accomplished by a change in environment such as thermal bathing. Hot water, steam and sand were all used to treat muscle spasms and pains. Fast forward through the antiquities and you find that hot and cold water was used for treatment of a variety of diseases. Also, early physicians used the sun's rays for the purpose of heat therapy.
Throughout the years, the bathing culture gradually changed from medical treatment to relaxation and pleasure. The word ‘spa’ could have been derived from a Belgian town of the same name where a curative, thermal spring was discovered. Or, it could have also originated from a Latin phrase ‘sanitas per aquas’ which means health through water. Either way, it was clear that hot and cold was a therapy that had staying power.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, spa treatments spanned Italy, France and the rest of western Europe. Hot springs were used for drinking and bathing while cold springs for drinking only. Doctors then turned the tide back and created centers for treatment, not leisure. Soaking in natural hot springs as a suggested therapy was also widely practiced in China and Japan during this time.
With the advent of better knowledge and science in the 19th and 20th centuries, medicinal use of thermal water and hydrotherapy was developed. Individual treatments were prescribed on the basis of ailment and temperature of water. As an added bonus, combinations of treatments were also made available; hot and cold baths together, herbal baths and massages were all part of the holistic approach to treatment.
With the development of hotels and guesthouses, springs became prevalent throughout Europe and North America. Grand hotels were built with amenities to entertain while not partaking in the healing nature of the spring. It was believed that the medical significance of bathing could improve all afflicted parts of the body and rheumatic diseases. At the same time, the Native Americans used hot vapor baths to treat fevers and to heal arthritis, neuritis, and rheumatism.
In the past decades, steam baths, saunas, whirlpools and solariums have become standard equipment of most spa resorts, with the main objective being to relax and strengthen the body and mind. There are now so-called health tourists, who combine their holidays with an investment in well-being.
Today, the Arthritis Foundation considers using natural heat and cold therapies for pain relief to be the two most simple, yet most effective treatments for arthritis and swelling. And let’s not forget the popularity of cold water and ice baths, otherwise known as cold water immersion or cryotherapy. It is a popular technique among amateur and professional athletes because it is thought to help reduce muscle inflammation and pain after exercise, as well as speed recovery time.
But do these aids and rituals actually do anything for your health? In recent studies, researchers have come up with positive results showing lasting effects for heat and cold therapy. Of course, this depends on the ailment and the severity. But in general, significant improvement in function, pain, global well-being and stiffness have all been found.
Throughout the ages, the interest in the use of hot and cold therapy has fluctuated from century to century and from nation to nation. And the medical world has viewed it with different opinions, from very enthusiastic to extremely critical, and from beneficial to harmful. Today, hot and cold therapy is receiving renewed attention from many medical specialties and health tourists, and having a revival.