Soaking in salty bath water is a well known, ancient folk remedy for stress. Despite the common assumption that this practice’s benefits are purely psychological, it appears that salt water’s ability to relieve pain has physiological merit. The medical applicability of salt water bathing is especially compelling for arthritis pain sufferers who have inflamed and painful joints.
Arthritis consists of many types of musculoskeletal disorders with a long list of different causes. Characterized by conditions that destroy joints and the surrounding tissue, arthritis is a major source of pain and immobility. Affecting approximately 50 million Americans, arthritis frequently limits physical activity.
A progressive, degenerative joint disease characterized by the breakdown of joint cartilage that affects nearly 33 million Americans, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. Acting as the joint’s shock absorber, cartilage normally functions to protect the joint. When osteoarthritis breaks down cartilage, the joint’s bones rub together, causing pain, swelling, inflammation, stiffness and reduced range of motion.
The most common type of inflammatory arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects approximately 1.3 million Americans. Considered to be an autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms can be more severe than osteoarthritis – with symptoms including pain, fatigue, loss of appetite and stiffness in the joints. In RA, the immune system attacks the joints causing chronic inflammation that can lead to severe joint damage and deformities.
New Study on Salt Water Baths
As published in the September 21, 2012 edition of the journal Immunity, researchers at the University of Manchester found that a salt water solution can ease joint inflammation by soaking or bathing in it. Their study confirmed the historic validity of Victorians finding joint pain relief by visiting hot springs (naturally high in sodium) to soak in their waters.
By investigating how expansion of the body’s cells control inflammation, the Manchester researchers injected a saline solution into a small animal’s body in an area with inflamed cells. Following the concept of osmosis, the saline sucked water out of the swollen cells – resulting in reduced cellular inflammation. Next, the researchers found that the saline solution had a similar effect with several methods of exposure. Cellular inflammation was reduced when:
- saline was injected into the inflamed area.
- a saline-soaked bandage was wrapped around the inflamed joint.
- the subject’s entire body was immersed in saline solution.
According to lead researcher Dr. Pablo Pelegrin, “We have found that hypotonic solutions (low in salt) strongly activate inflammation at molecular level. Conversely, the use of hypertonic solutions (high in salt) was a potent inhibitor of such inflammatory signals at molecular level. Therefore, osmotherapy (dehydration) with hypertonic solutions could be beneficial in the management of inflammatory joint diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, either by prolonged soaking or by vapour pressure techniques.”
Based on Pelegrin’s statement, we can make two conclusions:
- Soaking in a bath containing plain water has the potential to intensify inflammation in a susceptible individual’s joints.
- Soaking in a bath with a high salt content has the potential to reduce inflammation in a susceptible individual’s joints.
Although generally accepted as an extremely safe venture, soaking in a warm saline bath could be less than desirable if:
- there are any open skin wounds, as salt will sting.
- the water temperature is too hot, as this can burn, cause dizziness or hypotension.
Soaking in a warm bath helps expand tissue. As such, a warm bath exerts a dilating effect on blood vessels and a relaxing effect on tight muscles. While both of these functions are generally beneficial for tight, painful arthritic joints, the absence of salt could impede the bath’s overall benefit. Based on Pelegrin’s findings, dissolving several tablespoons of sodium chloride into warm bath water should be an essential practice for soaking away the pain and disability of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis or any other type of painful joint problem.