Kneipp therapy goes back to Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897), a catholic priest who was convinced to have cured himself of tuberculosis by using various hydrotherapies. Kneipp is often considered by many to be ‘the father of naturopathy’. Kneipp therapy consists of hydrotherapy, exercise therapy, nutritional therapy, phototherapy, and ‘order’ therapy (or balance). Kneipp therapy remains popular in Germany where whole spa towns live off this concept.
The obvious question is: does Kneipp therapy work? A team of German investigators has tried to answer it. For this purpose, they conducted a systematic review to evaluate the available evidence on the effect of Kneipp therapy.
A total of 25 sources, including 14 controlled studies (13 of which were randomized), were included. The authors considered almost any type of study, regardless of whether it was a published or unpublished, a controlled or uncontrolled trial. According to EPHPP-QAT, 3 studies were rated as “strong,” 13 as “moderate” and 9 as “weak.” Nine (64%) of the controlled studies reported significant improvements after Kneipp therapy in a between-group comparison in the following conditions:
- chronic venous insufficiency,
- mild heart failure,
- menopausal complaints,
- sleep disorders in different patient collectives,
- as well as improved immune parameters in healthy subjects.
No significant effects were found in:
- depression and anxiety in breast cancer patients with climacteric complaints,
- quality of life in post-polio syndrome,
- disease-related polyneuropathic complaints,
- the incidence of cold episodes in children.
Eleven uncontrolled studies reported improvements in allergic symptoms, dyspepsia, quality of life, heart rate variability, infections, hypertension, well-being, pain, and polyneuropathic complaints.
The authors concluded that Kneipp therapy seems to be beneficial for numerous symptoms in different patient groups. Future studies should pay even more attention to methodologically careful study planning (control groups, randomisation, adequate case numbers, blinding) to counteract bias.
On the one hand, I applaud the authors. Considering the popularity of Kneipp therapy in Germany, such a review was long overdue. On the other hand, I am somewhat concerned about their conclusions. In my view, they are far too positive:
- almost all studies had significant flaws which means their findings are less than reliable;
- for most indications, there are only one or two studies, and it seems unwarranted to claim that Kneipp therapy is beneficial for numerous symptoms on the basis of such scarce evidence.
My conclusion would therefore be quite different:
Despite its long history and considerable popularity, Kneipp therapy is not supported by enough sound evidence for issuing positive recommendations for its use in any health condition.