THE BAD THINGS about getting older — aches, pains and more serious medical issues — are offset by one good thing: years’ worth of personal treatment discoveries, which doctors, if they know about them, rarely reveal. I would suspect a medical conspiracy, but suspiciousness is in the category of bad things. Among the remedies of experience, the most ubiquitous is water: hot water, steam, cold water, salt water and ice.
For migraine headaches, lifetime sufferers require serious medication, even hospitalization. But when my migraines started in my 40s, due to some combination of hormones, weight-lifting and family stress, water helped immensely to stave off full-blown monster headaches if caught early enough: drinking as many glasses of cold water as possible; and splashing my face with alternating icy cold and very hot water, as extreme as possible. If I took Excedrin Migraine and then draped wet washcloths on my face, hot followed by cold, the pain usually subsided; if not, I showered in the two extremes. Almost always within half an hour, the pain receded until it was merely lurking beneath the surface of consciousness, as long as I moved gingerly and kept drinking water.
For cold sores, the horrific bane of my 20s and 30s and now mostly a distant memory, the slightest tickle around my mouth still sends me searching for ice, more than one cube because it melts quickly on the heated area. If ice is unavailable and a reddish bump begins to raise its ugly head, very cold water smoothes the skin’s surface, and the redness pales away.
Mentioning to doctors the use of water and ice as palliatives for migraines or cold sores has gotten me a few smiles and winks suggesting insiders’ collusion. My own doctor gave a resounding “Yes!” to the ice-cube cure. But asked if doctors might want to share such useful information, she shrugged, smiled and continued hammering away in search of my missing reflexes.
Among the better-known water cures, ice is recommended for many overheating problems, from oven burns to sun burns, as well as for swollen sprains and sore back muscles. Likewise hot-water baths or hot tubs, especially in the evening, can ease sore muscles, stress, even depression. When I recently attended a conference in Arizona, a dip each evening in the cheap highway-motel pool, heated to the high 90s, under the twinkling Tucson stars revived me enough to eat dinner, review notes and sleep peacefully.
And while a steam room also provides a soothing respite, there is nothing like a sinkful of very hot water for unclogging sinuses: Drape a large towel over your head, lean almost into the sink, hold the towel ends at the sink’s edge to make a little head tent and hover there for as long as possible. The steam penetrates, loosens and otherwise works its wonders.
Salt water — Epsom salts dissolved in a hot bath or foot tub — heals cuts and scrapes, prevents and treats infection, and soothes swelling and tired muscles. Of course, the best water therapy is in the ocean. Between the healthy salt and the chance to swim under blue skies away from pool lane lines and crowds, the ocean heals as it offers a place to think and dream in the peace and weightlessness of eternal youth.
Finally, in its form as a daily libation, water is supposed to be good for you. If drinking two eight-ounce glasses on waking seems unappetizing, however, growing disagreement about that prescription suggests that simply drinking when thirsty is healthy. And in contrast to rising each morning to a disagreeable task, the pleasure of a refreshing glass of water will benefit mental health, which must not be ignored.
— Mary Carpenter