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Watsu is a form of water therapy, which is also called hydrotherapy. It involves stretches, massages, and acupressure in warm water.
The term “watsu” comes from the words “water” and “shiatsu.” Shiatsu is a type of traditional Japanese massage that uses acupressure to promote relaxation. In Japanese, shiatsu means “finger pressure.”
Watsu was created by Harold Dull, a massage therapist, in 1980. Dull observed that it was easier for his clients’ muscles and tissues to relax in water. In turn, he found that shiatsu techniques were more effective when done in water.
Generally, Watsu therapy is used to alleviate pain and discomfort caused by a range of ailments. The idea is that the resistance of water soothes physical tension and encourages relaxation, which supports overall health.
Watsu therapy is done in a pool or hot tub. The water is heated to 95°F (35°C), which is close to the same temperature as your skin.
During Watsu, a therapist gently moves your body in water. This is known as passive hydrotherapy, because you don’t need to actively perform the movements.
Your therapist is in the water with you. They move your body in specific motions, which may include:
Watsu is typically done in a peaceful setting to increase relaxation. Many Watsu therapists play soothing music during the session.
As a therapeutic treatment, Watsu is used to alleviate pain and tension. People also use it to enhance physical movement and joint mobility.
It may provide relief for people with:
Though Watsu has been practiced since 1980, it hasn’t been extensively studied. To date, evidence-based benefits include:
Research has found a positive correlation between Watsu and pain relief. In a small 2015 study, nine healthy pregnant women experienced lower pain levels after Watsu therapy. The researchers attributed this to the therapeutic effect of water immersion on joint impact.
A 2013 study found similar results. After completing 15 Watsu sessions, 12 people with fibromyalgia reported fewer symptoms of pain. In a 2019 study, a group of children with juvenile arthritis also experienced less pain after receiving Watsu.
This might be explained by the effect of water on pain receptors, also called nociceptors. According to a
The buoyancy of water also decreases the gravitational force on the muscles, promoting muscle relaxation. This results in lower pain levels.
In general, pain increases anxiety. However, by managing pain, Watsu may help relieve anxiousness.
In a small 2014 case report, a person with temporomandibular disorders experienced lower anxiety levels after Watsu. The researchers associated this benefit with Watsu’s beneficial impact on pain.
The link between pain and anxiety may also work in the opposite direction. According to the researchers, anxiety and stress can worsen pain perception, but relaxing treatments, like Watsu, could help improve perceived pain.
The pregnant women in the 2015 study mentioned earlier also experienced improved mood after completing Watsu.
Additionally, in a 2018 case report, a woman received Watsu as rehabilitation after a serious motorcycle accident. She experienced an “emotional release” after therapy, along with feeling more at peace with her body.
Although these findings are encouraging, it’s important to note that these studies are very small. More research is needed to better understand the link between Watsu and anxiety.
Increased joint mobility
Like other types of water therapy, Watsu may help improve joint range of motion.
In the 2019 study mentioned above, 46 children with juvenile arthritis received either conventional hydrotherapy or Watsu. The researchers analyzed the participants’ joint range of motion before and after therapy.
They didn’t find statistically significant differences between the two treatments, suggesting that Watsu may have similar benefits to traditional hydrotherapy.
But the researchers also acknowledged that the active movements of conventional hydrotherapy may not be ideal for juvenile arthritis. The passiveness of Watsu, however, might provide better relief.
Although more studies are needed to explore how Watsu specifically helps joint mobility, hydrotherapy in general is recommended for improving joint range of motion.
Watsu has some drawbacks. As a passive form of therapy, you can’t actively move your body during treatment. You must be willing to let a therapist do it for you.
You’ll also be in close contact with the therapist. For some, this might feel uncomfortable.
You should also avoid Watsu if you have:
- uncontrolled epilepsy
- serious cardiac problems
- open wounds
- skin infections
- serious urinary tract problems
- bowel incontinence
- respiratory disease
- allergy to pool chemicals
These conditions may be worsened or complicated by water therapy.
Your therapist should also take extra precautions if you have:
- spinal problems
- balance problems
If you’re pregnant, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before trying Watsu. Many pregnant people like the gravity-relieving sensations of floating in water while carrying a baby, but your healthcare provider can confirm you’re a good candidate for this type of therapy.
Your Watsu session will be customized to your specific condition. It will involve massages, stretches, and movements designed to alleviate your symptoms.
Although Watsu sessions will vary depending on specific needs, here’s what you can typically expect during a session:
- Your therapist might have you wear floating devices on your arms or legs.
- You’ll enter the water and float on your back. The back of your head and knees will typically rest in your therapist’s forearms.
- Your therapist will slowly rotate, moving your body in large circles.
- Your therapist will alternate between extending their arms and drawing them in, moving you back and forth in the water as they do so.
- Your therapist will extend your arms and legs in gentle, repetitive patterns. They might also bend, lift, or twist different parts of your body.
- They may rest your head on their shoulder and move you in large circles.
- Throughout the session, your therapist will massage pressure points on your body.
Usually, a single session lasts for about an hour.
If you’d like to try Watsu, it’s important to work with a trained and licensed practitioner. You can check with your state board of health to insure the therapist is currently licensed.
If you have pain or want help with a particular condition, try to find a therapist who has experience with that condition or type of pain.
To find a Watsu therapist, you can search:
You can also contact the following locations and ask if they offer Watsu:
- local spas
- wellness centers
- aqua therapy clinics
In Watsu therapy, a therapist gently moves your body in warm water. They also perform massage and acupressure based on shiatsu. The passive, soothing nature of Watsu may help decrease pain and anxiety.
There isn’t much research on this type of therapy. Yet, Watsu is widely used to rehabilitate injuries and manage conditions like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and anxiety.
Before trying Watsu, check with your doctor first to make sure it’s safe for you.