Today most people think spas as places to get a massage or a facial. But spas originated around healing waters–aka hydrotherapy, the use of water in its many forms to relax and soothe pain. It may have been practiced for hundreds, indeed thousands of years, but the word "hydrotherapy" was coined in 1876. It is derived from hydro, the Greek word for water, and therapeuo, which means to heal, treat or cure.
Mineral springs spas such as Ojo Caliente in New Mexico are the most authentic descendants of the original spas and hydrotherapy. Their waters spring from the earth and have trace elements that benefit the body. The exact makeup of the water varies from spring to spring, and different waters are considered beneficial for different ailments. Ojo Caliente offers both individual baths and communal pools; others might offer one or the other.
Most spas have hot tubs and sometimes dramatic water features in their locker room areas or outdoor pools, but is that true hydrotherapy? Perhaps not, since the spas have to add sanitizing chemicals, which can be absorbed into the body, to these shared, public tubs and pools. You can get the benefits of contrast bathing by spending time in a steam room or sauna, then jumping in a cold shower. Alternating hot and cold stimulates the body's circulatory systems and boosts immunity.
Different Types of Hydrotherapy Treatments
Not all spas offer hydrotherapy treatments. The bigger and more elaborate the spa, the more likely it is to offer some form of hydrotherapy. A favorite is a Vichy shower, which usually follows a scrub and/or body wrap. You basically get a shower with five or seven heads while you're laying down.
Some body treatments involve rinsing off in a vertical shower with lots of shower heads installed, so that water comes at you from different directions. This feels pretty good, but the pressure has to be good and the heads well positioned so it doesn't splash into your face. In Europe, you might stand in an open shower and have the therapist hose you off gently.
Scotch showers are a form of hydrotherapy where high-pressure hoses are wielded by a therapist who is basically giving you a massage at a distance with a well-placed blast of water. You stand at the end of a long tile shower, and the therapist is at the other end. These are not that common in American because it's expensive to install, not that well understood, and requires skill by the therapist. Some spas have installed "rain showers" with special effects like sound, light, and even aroma.
Another option is therapeutic baths with jets that circulate water, which often has additives such as dried algae to help remineralize the body. Often these baths are part of a signature treatment. These baths are less common than they used to be because spas found that most people don't want to pay to be left alone in a bath. It can be worth it if it involves hands-on underwater massage with hoses.
The Meaning of Thalassotherapy
Thalassotherapy is a form of hydrotherapy that involves the therapeutic use of the ocean waters and marine products like algae, seaweed, and alluvial mud. The name comes from the Greek words thalassa ("the sea") and therap ("treat"). True thalassotherapy spas are popular in France, but hard to find in the U.S.
The principle behind thalassotherapy is that repeated exposure to sea air and immersion in warm seawater, mud, clay, and protein-rich algae helps restore the body's natural chemical balance. Seawater and human plasma are very similar. When immersed in warm seawater the body absorbs the minerals it needs through the skin.
You can always take a warm bath at home and add Epsom salts or quality marine products. Some of the benefits of warm bathing are stress relief, softening dead skin cells for easy exfoliation, and detoxification or remineralization, depending on what you add to the bath. Best thing of all? It's free to take a long, relaxing bath.