Georg Ivanovas From Autism to Humanism - systems theory in medicine

5.4 Balneology

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c) hydrotherapy as structural intervention

It is no surprise that the major influences to balneology came not from doctors but from outsiders, not obliged to the medical paradigm. Outstanding in their influence were:

Vinzenz Prießnitz (1799-1851), a German farmer observed how traumatised animals took cold baths. In self experience he confirmed this observation. He started to treat neighbours. The interest in his method increased, and finally his whole village became a kind of a spa. Without any physiological knowledge, only attributed with a good observation he introduced a system of applying cold compresses in order to induce sweating. His applications became a kind of a standard therapy in folk medicine in Germany until after WWII. It was mainly used in traumata, infectious disease, and to some extend in chronic disease. His system seems to show some similarities to the Hippocratic treatments.

Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897) a German catholic priest suffered from tuberculosis that ruined his health. After having read an old book on hydrotherapy, he took winter baths in the Danube. By that he recovered. After treating friends and neighbours his name and fame spread. In his later years he founded the spa of Bad Wörrishofen that continues until today his work. In recent years scientific research supports most of his therapies. Hydrotherapy was the basic of Kneipp’s treatments, but he used phytotherapy, physiotherapy and diet as well.

Although Kneipp was very successful, doctors were not interested in his work (Kneipp 1954b: 21). He was not only ignored but also brought to court by some physicians. It was only after his death that his work was partly adapted by mainstream medicine. But it was mainly kept alive in Germany by a strong public movement of patients (Kneipp-Vereine).

Kneipp was always an opponent of a standardized procedure. “Here I have to say that I do not approve the current sanatoria for hydrotherapy, sometimes I empathically disapprove them. They seem to be much too strong and – sorry for the expression – too one sided. Far too much is tarred with the same brush, and in my opinion too little the patients are distinguished, their more or less weakness, how deeply rooted the disease is and how more or less advanced the disease is with all its consequences. Exactly in this ability, in the diversity of applications and in the diversity to apply them to the individual patients mastery is proved“ (Kneipp 1954a: 19, my translation). He found best results when water was used in its simplest and mildest form (Kneipp 1954a: 20).

For Kneipp, the lack of robustness was the main reason for chronic disease (Kneipp 1954a: 23). Robustness and reagibility are improved through exercise and applications inducing physiological processes, not by compensating a lack of reaction.

One case report of Kneipp was the case of a boy continuously losing sight. Finally he hardly found his way when walking. Kneipp observed that the boy was generally in a bad condition. The aim of his prescriptions (baths and washings of different kind, for the whole body, for parts of the body and for the eyes) was to improve the health condition in general. After 7 weeks the boy regained normal sight and was in a better health, as well (Kneipp 1954b: 165-167). (1)

This case exemplifies that hydrotherapy uses a structural approach. It tries to influence the health on an organizational, on a second order level. Robustness (chap. 6.4) has to be increased. The actual symptom is not prior-ranking.


(1) This is in line with the concepts bioenergetics. To improve seeing exercises focus mainly on the relaxation and adaptability of the whole body and less on the eyes (Scholl 1978).

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