words :: Jessica Schaeffer.
When the summer sun finally melts away the white of winter, nature’s most important healing element is born. The lakes are warm enough to swim in, the roads to all-natural hot springs finally open up and glacier-fed rivers and streams hold many of the minerals essential to healing both acute and chronic injuries. If you fall off your bike in the backcountry, you most likely aren’t packing fresh ice to wrap around your sprained ankle. What to do? Find a stream or river and let the cold water do its work. Feeling stressed out after a long week? Soak yourself in some natural hot springs or the warmest lake around – water is everywhere, and has been used to heal for centuries.
First documented in the fifth century BC by the Greek physician Hippocrates, hydrotherapy is the therapeutic use of water at any temperature, including ice plunges and hot baths. Ancient Egyptians added flower essences and aromatic oils to bathwater to promote healing, while for ancient Romans, the communal bath was a way of life. In Greece, Hippocrates advocated bathing in spring water and North America’s Aboriginal peoples worshiped the healing powers of hot springs and cold-water pools for thousands of years, considering them gifts from their gods. Today, not much has changed.
“Hydrotherapy is a key tool for improving one’s health,” says Cathy Cranston, a Registered Massage Therapist from Scandinave Spa Whistler. “Contrasting hot/cold improves immune system function and aids in detoxifying by both improving waste removal from tissues and improving circulation so there is better nutrient delivery.”
Immersion into warm water dilates skin pores and increases blood flow to the skin and other organs. When the warm water contains therapeutic minerals such as sulfates, sodium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, chloride, silica, and others, the benefits to the body are magnified. “The heat expands blood vessels so they fill with blood and the cold constricts, creating the pumping effect,” says Cranston, who urges her clients to seek the benefits of hydrotherapy before a massage. “Heat on its own soothes our aches, increases blood flow, aids in toxin elimination through both perspiration and lymphatic drainage. Conversely, cold stimulates, increases metabolic rate, increases heart rate, increases muscle tone and increases blood pressure.”
Runners, cyclists and other mountain athletes often use ice baths to decrease inflammation in joints after long days of physical activity. But the cold is not for everyone.
“I use heat because I have joint degeneration,” says former Whistler resident Dr. Barbie Taylor. “Heat loosens the body and therefore lessens my pain.” Dr. Taylor has suffered from chronic arthritis for years, and starts every day with a soothing hot bath. “For people with arthritis, heat is fabulous. Cold just makes me miserable, but it all depends on the circumstance. For someone with an acute injury with inflammation, cold slows down your body’s initial reaction to the pain, and speeds up the recovery process.”
In the end, it doesn’t matter how or where you immerse your body in water, or what temperature you choose. Water is life and everyone knows what a dip in the lake will do to that pounding Margarita hangover.
From Mountain Life Coast Mountains, Summer 2010.