Hydrotherapy: Take The Detox Spa Plunge In Extreme Temperatures



Cold water has gotten a rather chilly reception in the United States, where it is mostly sought after as an antidote to a hot day. We love slipping into a cool blue pool when the mercury rises, or dipping our toes in the cold ocean. An icy mountain stream is okay for bathing if we’re camping, but hot water is always our first choice for cleanliness, comfort, and health. Hot water relaxes and soothes. Cold water is a rude awakening, a shock to the system that we would rather avoid.

Other cultures around the world, however, have used cold water as a ‘shock to the system’ to flush the organs and energize the body since ancient times. Scandinavian countries are famous for their dry-hot-sauna-roll-in-the-snow (or jump in a lake) routine, which the Finns were doing a thousand years ago. The Romans and Ottomans used cooling rooms after hot baths two thousand years ago in one of the largest social spa settings in the world. Traditional Chinese medicine has used cold water in healing therapies for even longer.

“Cold water is a stimulus,” says Anne Bramham, founder of the American Spa Therapy Education & Certification Council, which trains spa industry providers in the physiology and science of spa therapies. “The use of all hydrotherapy is to manipulate circulation to improve our quality of life.”

The man most closely identified with promoting cold water therapy in the (relatively) modern Western world is Sebastian Kneipp, a German priest who was pronounced terminally ill with lung disease when he was a young man in the 1800s. His self-treatment included daily baths in the icy Danube River for just a few minutes. After a year he was cured. He developed a system of self-care that involves more than hydrotherapy, but his treatments of alternating hot and cold water therapies have since been employed for many different health complaints. Bad Woerishofen (near Munich), where he lived, grew into a famous spa center. Today the Kneipp Association has a network of treatment and training centers throughout Europe and in South Africa.

Cold showers and immersions have been credited with increasing circulation by bringing blood to the capillaries, strengthening the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, contracting muscles in a kind of simulated massage that helps eliminate toxins, and strengthening mucous membranes that help resist hay fever, allergies, colds, and coughs.

“The skin and nervous system interact to boost the immune system,” says Bramham. But timing is everything, Bramham points out. And more is not better. “It’s not an endurance test. The second you’re in cold water, receptors are working and firing to the nervous system.” The body responds more quickly to water temperature than air temperature and there are more cold receptors on the skin than heat receptors. It only takes 30-45 seconds of exposure to benefit from the effects of cold water. “Always finish cold,” says Bramham. “And then wrap up and rest until your pulse rate and body temperature returns to normal. The effects on stress are amazing.”

Canadians have also embraced thermotherapy, also called Nordic Spa, slowly heating the body up and then quickly cooling it with a swift, cold plunge, and many spas above the border offer bains chaud-froid, or hot-cold baths.

Truly unique to the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa in Courtenay BC , the Pacific Mist Hydropath® offers the benefits of hydrotherapy including remineralization, detoxification, relaxation and more, in a setting that evokes Vancouver Island’s natural seaside elements.


With so much respect for the benefits of cold water therapy in other parts of the world, why hasn’t it caught on before in the United States? “We want to take a pill to be healthy,” says Mimi Barre, owner of International Skin and Body Care in Redlands, California, and a certified Kneipp therapist. “It’s a remarkable way to get healthy and stay healthy but seems too weird by our standards because Americans don’t like to do anything the least bit uncomfortable. We will eventually catch up,” says Barre, who offers a Scotch Hose Galien Jet water treatment, where the body is sprayed with a strong stream of alternating hot and cold water. “But the treatments have to be presented as fun rather than healthy.”

Leave it to Las Vegas to make cold water hot. Qua Baths and Spa at Caesars Palace has an Arctic Ice Room (55 degrees, heated benches as seen in main story image), where artificial snow falls from a glass ceiling with 120 waving fiber optic lights, a shaved ice fountain provides crushed chips to cool the skin, and the air, lit by 25,000 iridescent blue glass mosaic tiles, is infused with mint. Qua has also copied the Roman bath concept, offering a tepidarium (98 degrees), caldarium (104 degrees), and frigidarium (56 degrees) for alternating water therapies.



Spa Montage in Laguna Beach offers The Art of Spa, alternating hot and cold experiences, with a cold plunge pool that (at 51 degrees) stimulates everything from the tips of your toes to your hair roots. Their Botanical Bath service includes iced peppermint towels for the forehead and feet, a soak in rose and bergamot-scented warm water, as well as the use of both hot and cold stones for the Toning Facial. A sixty-minute complimentary ocean walk invigorates in the morning with thigh-high cold water stork-walking along the shoreline.


While the health benefits of cold water therapies and alternating hot-cold immersions are vast, the truth is that it is almost impossible to endure cold water without laughing, screaming, or cursing. I laugh and scream, whether I’m counting out my 30 to 60 seconds in the shower at home, or doing the plunge pool routine. Cold water is a thrill, and that’s hot.

Where to Find Cold Plunge Pools and other Cold Body Treatments:

Cold Plunge Pool, Ecos Spa
Naperville, IL
(630) 357-2772

Cold Plunge Pool, Great Jones Spa
New York City, NY
(212) 505-3185

German Kneipp Wasser Kur International Skin and Body Care
Redlands, CA
(909) 739-8080

Aquatonic, Kohler Waters Spa
Kohler, WI
(920) 457-7777

Scandinavian Baths Le Scandinave Spa, Mont-Tremblant
Mont-Tremblant, Quebec
(819) 425-5524

Hana Hydrotherapy Room, Maui Spa and Wellness Center
Boca Raton, FL
(561) 395-7733

Art of Spa, Montage Resort and Spa
Laguna Beach, CA
(949) 715-6000

Arctic Room Qua Baths and Spa at Caesar’s Palace
Las Vegas, NV
(866) 227-5938

Cold Plunge Pool and Kneipp Mineral Salts, Spa Avania at the Hyatt Regency, Scottsdale
Scottsdale, AZ
(480) 444-1234

Purifying Bath Ritual, Sundara Spa
Wisconsin Dells, WI
(888) 735-8181

Cold Water Therapy at Home and Work

To infuse your day with the benefits of cold water therapy, try these experiences:

At home:

Start out with a warm shower, then step out and turn the hot water off. Step in and get your feet, extremities, and face wet; then stand so that the water hits the top of your head for 10 seconds. Work up to a minute. Never do cold water treatments on a cold body; warm the body first to exercise the blood vessels.

For aching legs or swollen ankles, fill the tub half-full of cold water and ‘stork-walk’, lifting your legs out of the water, for up to a minute. The exchange of warmer air with cold water expands and contracts capillaries.

Take a Kneipp footbath for tired legs, poor circulation, headaches, or insomnia: Fill one bucket with warm water and the other with cold (three-fourths way up your lower leg), alternating warm water for 5 minutes, cold for 10 seconds, and repeat. Dry your feet, put on socks, and take a brisk walk for 10 minutes or go to bed right away. Do not let your legs get cold again.

At Work:

Go to the restroom and run cold water over your wrists for a minute or fill the sink with cold water and immerse both of your arms to just above the elbows; even 20 to 30 seconds can be a healthier stimulant than caffeine.

By Judy Kirkwood

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