What Is Balneotherapy, and Does It Work for Muscle Pain?
Hot springs are more than just a luxurious spa moment. An emerging trend in muscle pain treatment, balneotherapy shows soaking in hot mineralized water can provide major relief, whether you have a chronic condition or just went too hard in your last workout. Here, Marcus Coplin, M.D., the medical director at The Springs Resort in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and director of hydrothermal medicine for the Balneology Association of North America, explains how this therapy works.
What exactly is balneotherapy?
Balneotherapy is the use of mineral water therapeutically. Whether you’re soaking in the water, sitting in a steam room, or even drinking it, that all sits under the umbrella of balneotherapy.
What minerals are in the water?
Every thermal mineral water source is unique, but minerals commonly present include magnesium, sulfur, sodium, calcium, chloride, boron, silica, lithium, iodine, and iron. For a water to be considered balneological, it must have a minimum concentration of 1g/L of total dissolved minerals and a minimum temperature of 68°F.
How does it help with muscle pain?
Water, by itself, has a thermal mechanism that stimulates metabolic action, improves circulation, regulates hormone signaling, and reduces inflammation, which can lead to quicker recovery. There’s also the buoyancy factor—the pressure that the water exerts on the skin stimulates nerves and the anti-gravity effect causes your brain and muscles to relax.
The minerals can add to that with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, better regulation of hormones and the immune system, and reduced pain. When you soak in the water, you experience the chemical action of the minerals on the body, as opposed to the minerals being incorporated into the body through nutrition. This enhances the thermal and buoyancy benefits that the water has on its own.
Is there evidence to show it works?
We don’t have enough data to say this is the best treatment for muscle pain, but we have enough to say that it definitely affects pain levels, it’s definitely safe, and it definitely has long-lasting effects. In fact, one study found significant improvement of pain for patients with fibromyalgia that persisted until 6 months after treatment.
So what happens in a session?
The standard treatment is a full-body immersion in water. Different temperatures are prescribed for different conditions—cooler water is typically suggested for neurological conditions while hot or warm water is usually used for muscle pain. People soak from 20 to 45 minutes per session. For common pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, 20 minutes, 5 times a week, for 3 weeks is a typical short-term treatment. Often some form of manual therapy is paired with the balneotherapy, such as massage therapy, lymphatic draining, or electrical stimulation
How soon do you feel better?
You can expect to feel better right after a session, but the more you do it, the longer the benefits will last as there is an accumulative effect. That said, chronic pain conditions will require longer periods of intervention than sore muscles post-workout.
Are there any risks to balneotherapy?
People with diabetes may have reduced peripheral sensation, so potentially the water can be too hot and they won’t realize it, but that’s very rare. Other than that, it’s not like a drug or supplement where you have to be worried about interactions or allergies.
How can I find a balneotherapy provider?
There are hot springs all over North America and the world. You can go to balneology.org to find locations that provide this tailored therapy or go to hotspringsofamerica.com for a map of all the hot springs near you.
What if I don’t live near a hot spring?
If you have a tub, fill it with a temperature of water that is comfortable for you. Add approximately 5 cups of epsom salt and soak for 15 to 20 minutes.
If you don’t have a bathtub, get a big bucket of hot or warm water, dissolve 1 to 2 cups of epsom salts in it, and soak your feet up to your shins. It won’t have the same effect as a bathtub, but you can still find some relief that way.
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