Balneotherapy is broadly defined as the use of water for therapeutic purposes, and it can be traced as far back as 1700 B.C. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates wrote about the medicinal powers of water. The Romans are credited with infusing balneotherapy with technical sophistication, and over the centuries Roman baths developed into massive structures.
The downfall of the Roman empire led to a loss of interest in balneotherapy, and it wasn't until the 19th century that an Austrian peasant farmer named Vincent Priessnitz revived interest in cold-water treatment for wounds. Spas took off during the Victorian era; Americans who visited Europe were exposed to a variety of water treatments, and spas began to pop up in the U.S.
In its broadest sense, balneotherapy is synonymous with hydrotherapy and includes mudpacks, douches and the application of wraps. Proponents of the therapy point to the benefits of water on the skin. The chemical components of sulfur water can be used to treat acne and other skin conditions. The thermal effects of hot water have also been found to be of therapeutic value; heat is known to increase the amount of beta-endorphin, a natural painkiller in the body. Other positive effects of water on the body include reduced swelling and even lower heart rates. There's also research that claims that water has immunological effects, since skin absorbs certain elements from mineral water that have a positive effect on the immune system.
Balneotherapy isn't for everybody, however: Young children and pregnant women should not be exposed to hot water for any substantial length of time. Also, if you have any kind of wound on your body, entering a public bath is a bad idea; infections are much more easily transmitted in wet and warm conditions.
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