They're messy, they're wet and let's face it, some of them sound a little strange, but hydrotherapy services are winning over curious spa clients.
When people want stress relief, they tend to go for massage-the manipulation of muscles, the prone sleeping position and the feel of another's hands all create a comforting environment. But massages are difficult to book at the last minute, and they tend to knock you out rather than energize you. So more spas are offering their clients other methods of relaxation and rejuvenation-methods that involve water.
Hydrotherapy, as it's called, can take many forms. Certainly the Turks, Romans, Vikings and other ancient folks knew the joy of sweating, hanging out around and plunging into pools of occasionally stinky-smelling natural springs; that's hydrotherapy. (So is the modern-day equivalent, which consists of sweating, hanging out and plunging into waves of occasionally stinky-smelling ocean water.) Even jumping into a chlorinated pool for a few laps, sitting in a steam room or collapsing your perspiring, unclean self into a narrow tub filled with still water from the tap can qualify as hydrotherapy.
So what's so great about that H2O? For starters, "Laying around in water gives you a feeling of extra buoyancy and takes away the gravitational pull. It's a nice feeling of lack of wear and tear on your bones, plus it's a great way to distribute heat," says Patrick Leary, a sports medicine specialist at the University of Notre Dame. Obviously, that's an enormous help to people in physical rehabilitation, which is where hydrotherapy tubs (think of a modified Jacuzzi or whirlpool) first gained widespread usage.
Many spas offer that kind of traditional hydrotherapy, and in fact some hotel spas, like the one at The Plaza in New York, find the whirlpool being used more and more by spa clients who just want a way to relax after they've worked out in the spa's gym. But spas being spas, most try to fancy things up a bit and present a bigger, more elaborate treatment. Mii amo Spa at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Arizona, offers something called "The Athlete," which blends an hour-long strength-training session with a 60-minute hydrotherapy bath and a massage to work out areas of tension and soreness.
And some don't rely on the tub at all. Kohler Waters Spa at the American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin, should know a thing or two about water treatments-its parent company is one of the leading faucet makers in the country. Kohler offers a Rain Water Experience, which consists of a head, scalp and neck massage performed on a massage table, followed by a shower of water from seven jets on a swinging arm positioned above the table (what's known as a Vichy shower); the massage therapist then performs a Swedish massage on the rest of your body while the water continues to rain down. Sound too tame? Kohler also offers something called a Tsunami, which, according to spa manager Joan Rogers, involves "basically, being drenched by buckets of warm water while you're on the massage table. Men especially like that one."
The use of water as a force against the skin increases sensitivity in its nerve endings and hence makes the subject feel more awake and alert. At The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, a popular service is the Quick Fix, a combination of a Swiss shower (a multilevel shower with anywhere from nine to 12 showerheads of varying pressures) and Scotch spray-basically a small, pressurized hose used to blast at areas of special pain and tension. After 25 minutes of this, not even a board meeting will put you back to sleep.
The same holds true for treatments that combine hot and cold water, which have a kind of yin and yang influence on the body. "Warm water gives your brain a message to dilate the blood vessels to let heat escape; when you're in cold water, everything constricts and blood surrounds the internal organs. That's why swings of temperature are refreshing and kind of a zing," notes Leary. Guests who sign up for the Water Path Ritual at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Farmington, Pennsylvania, walk through two troughs of water-one cold, the other hot-then hit the Swiss shower, and end up soaking in a tub filled with mineral salts.
Hydrotherapy in spas still has a ways to go to combat its clunkier aspects: Some people will never get used to the idea of someone shooting a hose of water at them. San Francisco's Tru spa has taken a different approach and one that will likely inspire copycats: All "wet treatments" are performed in a private area separate from the rest of the spa. The room is a combination steam bath, "rain" shower and "waterfall" area for rinsing. Clients can apply and remove the products they choose to use on their skin themselves.
Do hydrotherapy services feel great? Undoubtedly. You will emerge feeling squeaky-clean and reinvigorated, with (temporarily) lowered blood pressure due to (temporarily) improved circulation and general relaxation. Do they have lasting health benefits? Leary hedges. "I suppose if you lay in a bath filled with mineral salts and trace elements some small part of that will be absorbed through your skin," he says. "But just like there's never been a study done that proves that if you feel better you perform better, there's never been a study done that I know of that proves that about hydrotherapy, either." He pauses. "But doesn't seem like it would hurt."