Soaking in warm water, with or without minerals, is one of the oldest forms of medicine. And there’s good reason why this practice has stood the test of time. Research has shown it works wonders for all kinds of musculoskeletal complaints, including fibromyalgia, arthritis and low back pain.
“Water is wonderful,” says Carol Huegel, a physical therapist with ReQuest Physical Therapy, Gainesville, Fla. Huegel says submersion aids sore joints three ways: It reduces the force of gravity that’s compressing the joint; offers 360-degree support for sore limbs (almost like an Ace bandage); and can increase circulation and decrease inflammation. And Huegel says its moist heat is more penetrating than the dry heat you’d get from a heating pad.
Plus, it works fast. In a 2010 study from Istanbul University in Turkey published in Rheumatology International, 30 men and women with osteoarthritis of the knee were able to take longer, faster strides after soaking in warm water for 20 minutes a day for two weeks. Other studies have shown that participants may be able to reduce their pain medication after establishing a habit of regular soaks.
Here are some simple steps to make the most of your next bath:
Go warm, not hot. Huegel keeps the water temperature of her therapy pools between 92 degrees and 96 degrees. “It’s a big stress on the heart if you go hotter,” she says. “It becomes a health risk,” she adds, especially if you have a history of heart problems. Beware of whirlpools, where the average temperature is 104 degrees.
Don’t just sit there. A warm bath is relaxing, but it’s actually stimulating blood flow to stiff muscles and frozen joints, making it an ideal place to do some gentle stretching. Paul Ingraham, a retired massage therapist in Vancouver, Canada, likes to bring a tennis ball into the tub to knead away his own low back pain. Just trap the ball between the small of your back and the bottom or back of the tub. Lean into the ball and use your buoyancy to help you roll it against knotted muscles.
Add some salts. Data collected by the National Academy of Sciences show most Americans don’t get enough magnesium, a mineral that’s important for bone and heart health. If you’re tired of taking pills, a new study shows that bathing in magnesium sulfate crystals, or Epsom salts – which are relatively inexpensive and can be found in drug and grocery stores – can boost magnesium levels as much as 35%. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom suggest soaking in a bath spiked with three cups of Epsom salts for about 12 minutes, two to three times a week.