How hydrotherapy can be useful for PTSD sufferers

Hydrotherapy and PTSD

There is now a proven link between mental health and physical health, which is why mental health conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often have physical symptoms too.

One example is that PTSD and C-PTSD can result in a person becoming hypervigilant.  This can manifest itself through habits such as constant muscle tightening.  These habits can then lead to issues such as chronic pain in the joints and muscles.

What’s great to know is that steps that improve a person’s physical health can also help to improve their mental health, and vice versa.

One holistic way of dealing with these symptoms, which we often talk about at PTSD UK, is hydrotherapy (this includes things like wild swimming and cold water therapy too). For many years, water has been seen to have healing properties – and it can be hugely beneficial to those suffering from PTSD and C-PTSD, both for the support it can offer physically, but also because of the mental relaxation benefits.

Hydrotherapy and PTSD

Modern hydrotherapy combines heat, steam and massage.  It may also include other treatments such as essential oils and/or healing salts.  The benefits of all these treatments have been known for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  More recently, they have been validated by science.  Here is a quick guide to the key elements of hydrotherapy and what they mean for your health.

Heat

If you go to a hydrotherapy pool, the temperature is usually around 35°C.  If you have a whirlpool bath or hydrotherapy shower, you can choose the temperature yourself.  Essentially, you generally want it to be on the warmer side of what’s comfortable for you.  For completeness, a hydrotherapy treatment should never be uncomfortable.  In fact, that would defeat some of the purpose of it.

The therapeutic benefits of heat are now gaining increasing scientific attention.  This is often in connection with saunas.  Scientists are also researching ways to maintain cognitive function in an ageing population.

Probably the most obvious benefit of heat is that (in moderation), it relaxes both the mind and the body.  In particular, it relaxes joints and muscles and expands blood vessels.  Relaxing joints and muscles provides immediate pain relief.  Expanding blood vessels makes it easier for the blood to get where it’s needed and do its work.

What’s more, heat also stimulates the heart.  Fundamentally, the heart is the pump that powers the body.  Stimulating it makes the body’s systems work faster.  This means that the blood delivers oxygen and nutrients more quickly.  It also means that the lymphatic system drains away waste more quickly.

Steam

Any time you heat water, you will get some steam.  This will generally be a small amount.  You might not even consciously notice it.  Even so, it will deliver some benefits to you.  If you wish, however, you can take this up a level by using a steam generator.

The benefits of steam can be grouped into two categories.  The first is the benefit of heat as has already been explained.  The second is the benefit of cleansing. Steam can get right into the tiniest crevices in the human body, including the ones in the lungs. 

This may not be directly relevant to alleviating PTSD itself, however it can be very relevant to managing some of the addictive behaviours it can cause, especially smoking.  Anyone who smokes needs to care for their lungs as well as they can until they give up.  Steam can help with this.

Massage

In the context of PTSD, the main benefits of massage are the same as the main benefits of heat.  This is because any form of massage generates kinetic energy.  Any form of energy generates heat. 

If you go to a human massage therapist, you can also benefit from in-depth tissue manipulations.  These can be useful for treating injuries.  

If all you need is a basic massage, then using massage tools at home can be more economical.  It can also be more convenient.  These tools can also be used to complement massage with a human therapist.

There are plenty of massage tools on the market.  Most domestic hydrotherapy products will come with them built in.  For example, hot tubs, whirlpool baths and hydrotherapy showers will all typically come with massage jets. 

If you’re thinking of buying one (or more) of these then it’s important to do your research thoroughly.  The quality, type, number and placement of these jets can make a significant difference to your experience with the product.

Essential oils

If you are interested in using essential oils for PTSD, it’s advisable to have a consultation with a professional.  This will ensure that you only use oils that are both suitable and safe.  A professional will also be able to guide you on where to buy high-quality essential oils.  These are likely to cost more than many of the essential oils you see in high-street shops.  They are, however, more than worth it for their medical benefits.

Healing salts

If you use a regular or whirlpool bath, you can generally use bath products such as healing salts.  You may or may not be able to use these with hot tubs.  These products are generally created to relieve general aches and pains and/or promote relaxation.  Many of them include essential oils.  This means, again, it’s advisable to check what oils are suitable and safe for you personally.

But does Hydrotherapy for PTSD work?

There’s plenty of medical research to support the benefits of hydrotherapy for people with PTSD and C-PTSD. Toda et al found in 2006 that water bathing helps to decrease stress hormones such as cortisol. Marzsziti et al observed in 2007 that water bathing can help improve serotonin levels – a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for helping you to feel good. Additionally, Yamamoto et al discovered in 2008 that footbaths can help to decrease the stress response and bring down the feeling of fight or flight. In 2005, Balogh also noticed that patients who bathed in mineral water experienced improvements in their back pain for at least three months from the end of treatment.

Choosing your route to hydrotherapy

Traditionally, the route to hydrotherapy was through a hydrotherapy centre.  In some cases, this may still be the only option.  For example, if you need intensive physical therapy, then you may need a bigger pool and/or more equipment than is feasible to have at home.

Likewise, if you believe that your need for hydrotherapy will be short-term, then going to a hydrotherapy centre can be more economical than investing in products for your home.  With that said, the decision here can be a bit more balanced. 

For example, if you have to travel then you could benefit from the convenience of home-based products.  These also give you the security of being available whenever you need them.

If you aren’t able to access a hydrotherapy centre, you can always try it at home by having a warm bath. You can add bath oils, aromatherapy scents, mineral bath salts and may find it relaxing to have candles too. If hypervigilance is a problem for you, perhaps ask a friend or loved one to stay in a room close by, if this helps you.

If, however, you anticipate a longer-term need for hydrotherapy, then it can make a lot of sense to invest in your own whirlpool bath, hydrotherapy shower and/or hot tub.  These can all be used for their wellness benefits after your treatment has ended.  Whirlpool baths and hydrotherapy showers can also add value to your home.  Hot tubs can be taken with you if you move.

Although hydrotherapy is unlikely to be enough to eliminate the PTSD or C-PTSD, it may, however, help to mitigate at least some of its symptoms.  This can provide the person with some useful breathing space while they work to deal with the underlying issue.

It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD or C-PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.


This article has been written in collaboration with the lovely team at Steam Shower Store in Lancashire.

  • Ohrnberger J, Fichera E, Sutton M. The relationship between physical and mental health: A mediation analysis. Soc Sci Med. 2017 Dec;195:42-49. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.11.008. Epub 2017 Nov 8. PMID: 29132081.
  • Iribarren J, Prolo P, Neagos N, Chiappelli F. Post-traumatic stress disorder: evidence-based research for the third millennium. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Dec;2(4):503-12. doi: 10.1093/ecam/neh127. PMID: 16322808; PMCID: PMC1297500.
  • Brunt VE, Minson CT. Heat therapy: mechanistic underpinnings and applications to cardiovascular health. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2021 Jun 1;130(6):1684-1704. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00141.2020. Epub 2021 Apr 1. PMID: 33792402; PMCID: PMC8285605.
  • Hussain J, Cohen M. Clinical Effects of Regular Dry Sauna Bathing: A Systematic Review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2018 Apr 24;2018:1857413. doi: 10.1155/2018/1857413. PMID: 29849692; PMCID: PMC5941775.
  • Sauna as a Valuable Clinical Tool for Cardiovascular, Autoimmune, Toxicant-induced and other Chronic Health Problems.
  • Sumpton B, Baskwill A. A Series of Case Reports Regarding the Use of Massage Therapy to Improve Sleep Quality in Individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2019 Nov 30;12(4):3-9. PMID: 31827654; PMCID: PMC6887121.
  • Hydrotherapy Benefits for Athletes

  • A Cold Splash–Hydrotherapy for Depression and Anxiety

  • Hydrotherapy and PTSD

  •  
  •  

Photo by Zone Three on Unsplash

Hello! Did you find this information useful?

Please consider supporting PTSD UK with a donation to enable us to provide more information & resources to help us to support everyone affected by PTSD, no matter the trauma that caused it

PTSD UK Blog

You’ll find up-to-date news, research and information here along with some great tips to ease your PTSD in our blog.

Wild Side of PTSD

Guest Blog: Wild Side of PTSD Hannah is aspiring wildlife researcher/conservationist who has just completed an MSc that she was very close to dropping out from due to her PTSD. Hannah’s passion for raising awareness focuses on an important part

Read More »

PTSD and BPD

What’s the difference between PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder? Finding the right treatment for any mental health condition starts with getting the right diagnosis. But that can be tricky when different conditions present in similar ways, or sometimes even occur

Read More »

Blue Light Symphony Orchestra

Blue Light Symphony Orchestra The Blue Light Symphony Orchestra is a UK charity with the aim to encourage music making at a local level within the UK emergency services and also make music therapy available to those in the emergency

Read More »

Writing and PTSD Guest Blog

Guest Blog: How writing is helping me to cope with PTSD Many people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder find that writing can help them to understand their PTSD or C-PTSD and the symptoms they are experiencing – whether that be

Read More »

WSPD

Asking directly about suicidal thoughts can help save lives To mark World Suicide Prevention Day on the 10th of September, our charity partner Samaritans is encouraging people not to be afraid to talk about suicidal thoughts and feelings if they are

Read More »

Grief famous person

How the death of someone famous can affect PTSD symptoms We are deeply saddened by the death of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. An inspiration to our country, her 70 years of dedication and service have shown her incredible strength

Read More »

PTSD UK Supporters Store

100% of the profits from everything in our online Supporters Store goes directly to our mission – to help everyone affected by PTSD in the UK, no matter the trauma that caused it.

Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.