Balneotherapy (from the Latin balneum, meaning “bath”): The treatment of disease or injury by drinking or soaking in water with curative properties.
In the holistic, less-than-formal definition of “balneotherapy” that we’ve adopted at The Soaking Life, the term encompasses the healing properties of all activities related to soaking in mineralized water. As a therapeutic practice, balneotherapy may be integrated into spa treatments, delivered in a clinical setting or pursued on an individual basis. Healing water may range in temperature from ice cold to tepid to hot and may come from a variety of sources, but most of the material on our site pertains to the therapeutic benefits of soaking in geothermally heated water from naturally occurring hot springs.
Standards for the temperature and content of therapeutic water vary from one culture to another, but in general, water must contain a certain percentage of one or more minerals or gases in order to produce health benefits. My personal favorites include sulfur and sulfates, which promote cellular regeneration, and lithium, a mineral that soothes the nerves. Bicarbonates, chloride, fluoride, iron, calcium, magnesium, carbon dioxide and radon are among the many mineral or gas components of healing water. The health benefits attributed to balneotherapy include:
- Hydrating, cleansing and exfoliating the skin, which may relieve symptoms of eczema, psoriasis and other dermatological disorders
- Soothing the inflammation and pain associated with arthritis, gout, rheumatism, scleroderma and other diseases affecting joints and connective tissue
- Promoting healthy respiratory function and relieving symptoms of sinusitis, bronchitis, asthma and other conditions that affect the breathing passages
- Supporting the metabolic functions of the digestive organs and the cleansing activities of the liver and kidneys
- Easing muscle pain related to athletic activity, injury or overuse
In my experience, soaking creates a sense of deep tranquility that’s unrivaled by just about any other activity. The recorded practice of bathing to promote healing dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, but the use of water for healing is probably as old as the human body itself. The temptation of a cauldron of warm spring water on a chilly day would have simply been too much for prehistoric men and women to resist, although they probably didn’t sit around debating the effects of sulfuric water on osteoarthritis or psoriasis.
While not everyone has access to a spa or a geothermal spring, most of us can create a therapeutic environment with a bathtub filled with warm water and a handful of Epsom salt. We’ve expanded the definition of ”soaking” to include the exercises, beverages, foods and supplements that we associate with the therapeutic properties of water. A moderate hike followed by a soak or swim in a geothermal pool and a delicious, healthy meal is my idea of the perfect day.
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Altman, Nathaniel. Healing Springs: The Ultimate Guide to Taking the Waters. Healing Arts Press: Rochester, VT, 2000.
Encyclopedia Britannica; “Balneotherapeutics“; 1911. New York: pp. 284-285.
Photo by Eric Havelock-Bailie, copyright 2011