Balneology is the practice of bathing as a way to stimulate health and cure some disorders. Evidence has been found of human beings using hot springs since the Bronze Age. The practice of bathing for health is still part of some cultures, but in others, it has been rejected because of claims that it is a sham. Most often, the water in which the bathing takes place has been imbued with some kind of mineral, though simply cold or hot water has also been used to massage the body.
The study of balneology began with the discovery of hot springs. These naturally steaming waters are often imbued with minerals which are beneficial to the skin. Historically, public bathhouses were offered in many countries, such as Italy, to promote everyone's health and well-being. During the Roman empire, heated baths were open to the public. Bath attendants, who doubled as doctors, took care of the facilities and recommended which types of soaks would be the most helpful to each person.
Compounds such as sulfur, iron, bicarbonate, and boron are often found in hot springs. Bicarbonate helps open peripheral blood vessels. Sulfur can help with some kinds of skin conditions, and inhaling the fumes can improve respiratory problems. Sodium chloride can be beneficial in that it helps with arthritis. When used in small doses, boron can strengthen the muscles.
Besides the heath benefits of certain kinds of minerals, simply bathing in very hot water is said to encourage circulation and relaxation. The constant bubbling of hot springs or the pressure of water jets in modern bathtubs can provide a soothing massage, while the heat encourages stressed muscles to loosen up. Some disorders balneology may alleviate include arthritis, sports injuries, poor circulation, and skin conditions. Some hot springs even make the claim that they can help with infertility.
Balneology remains a common practice in Asia and Europe. Many of the spa facilities are government-funded. In Asia, some hot springs are famous worldwide. Tourists travel from all over the world to bathe in the hot springs found in Japan. Some hot springs are used by snow monkeys in the wild for the same reasons humans take advantage of them.
In the United States, the use of balneology as a medical treatment reached its peak in the 1940s. Soon after, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disavowed many health spas for making fraudulent claims about the water's effects. Since then, balneology has not been considered a major medical treatment in the United States.