A Case of Hysteria

The Water Cure

Although the benefits of hydrotherapy for certain medical conditions have been known since ancient times, doctors began to prescribe it for mental illness around the late 1800s, and in particular for female patients presenting signs of “hysteria.” Warm baths were used for patients with insomnia and suicidal tendencies. These baths could last from several hours to several days, with water temperatures typically ranging from 92–97°F. On the other hand, cold water was thought to be best for those diagnosed with manic-depressive psychoses, and over ex-citement—under the notion that cold water slowed blood flow to the brain, thus decreasing mental and physical activity. For other maladies, physicians experimented with alternating hot and cold temperatures to try and achieve the desired results. Various hydrotherapy treatments were employed, including baths, douches, colonic irrigations, packs, or showers. One of the methods involved locking patients in steam cabinets. These had a large canvas cover with a hole for the patient’s head to prevent drowning.

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