A thermal bath is a hot or tepid bath used to treat both chronic and acute diseases and to provide relaxation and stress relief. Europe, Japan and other areas have a long history of the medical use of thermal baths, while in North America, they are mainly used for recreational or restorative reasons. Alleviating the pain of inflammatory joint diseases such as arthritis is one of the primary medical uses for a thermal bath. Relieving nervous anxiety and muscle strain are other common uses. Studies are being conducted on the therapeutic use of hot baths for a variety of illnesses.
Many believe that a thermal bath improves the flow of the blood and lymph fluid. This increases the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the cells, while helping to speed the removal of toxins from the body. The health-giving properties of a thermal bath are used to treat lung disorders, digestive problems and skin conditions. A series of treatments is generally needed, rather than a single use. Many believe a weeklong spa retreat with multiple therapeutic baths and other treatments can help in smoking cessation, weight loss and improving skin tone.
The curative use of a thermal bath reaches back to ancient times. Evidence of the appreciation of the restorative properties of hot mineral springs dates to the Bronze Age in Asia and as far back as 10,000 years ago in the Americas. Early thermal baths used the mineral rich waters of natural hot springs to rejuvenate and heal. Many modern spas continue to use hot springs as the source of their waters. The minerals found in many of the waters, including magnesium, calcium, iron and others, are absorbed through the skin and are believed to be beneficial for health.
In the Americas, hot springs were considered sacred sites that native peoples would visit to rehabilitate after injury or illness. Early European settlers, used to the concept of spas with thermal baths, built spa facilities at the sites of the thermal springs. They were popular for their curative waters and as places to rejuvenate and relax. With the development of modern medical techniques that relied on the therapeutic use of medications, many of the spas saw fewer visitors. More recently, there has been a revival of spas and the thermal bath for both recreational and therapeutic use.
The science of the medical use of baths, especially hot baths in mineral rich waters, is called balneology. When thermal or cold-water baths are used therapeutically at spas and elsewhere, this is termed balneotherapy. In conjunction with therapeutic bathing, the mineral rich waters may also be taken internally. The use of clays and heated sand are also practiced as part of balneotherapy. Hydrotherapy has a similar meaning and is generally used to denote the use of water in relieving pain and treating illness.