Aquatic therapy is a form of skilled physical therapy that takes place in the water, usually a small pool, under the supervision of a physical therapist. It is a well-tolerated form of exercise that allows for non-weight bearing or limited weight bearing activities and is most commonly utilized by an older population, as normal joint degeneration and deconditioning occurs with aging.
Aquatic therapy is beneficial because it promotes relaxation of muscles, decreases muscle spasms, increases range of motion, improves circulation and heart and lung health, and decreases edema. It is also especially beneficial for joint pain and stiffness, including back pain, and can help with certain conditions such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lymphedema, and lupus.
How does aquatic therapy work?
Aquatic exercise does not necessarily mean swimming. Aquatic therapy is one on one and can therefore be tailored for an individual based on their specific needs and limitations. Exercises are specifically designed based on where strength or range of motion are lacking. It can include walking in the water, marching in place, balance work such as standing on one leg, kicking in different directions, squats, etc.
Patients are able to perform these exercises because the pool is like nature’s body weight support system. By reducing the forces placed on the joints, patients can move freely in the same walking and movement patterns they need for normal life, but can work at a higher level than what they can tolerate on land. Patients can push their limits a bit more without worrying about falling because they are able to walk faster and more evenly right to left.
Decreasing the risk of injury, especially for those patients who are fall risks, is another advantage of aquatic therapy. The water provides security to those patients who are susceptible to losing their balance. The buoyancy of water provides a non-threatening environment and allows patients to get into certain positions and make particular movements they may not be able to make on the land.
The cardiovascular effect
Aquatic therapy can also increase heart rate and work the cardiovascular system more efficiently because patients are able to perform these quicker movements. This can lead to improvements in overall cardiovascular and respiratory health. In a recent study done on individuals with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), those that received aquatic therapy, vs individuals that were trained in a therapy gym, reported that they had less fatigue and less breathlessness when completing activities of daily living such as showering and dressing. They also noted improved stamina and ability to complete tasks such as walking long distances and shopping.
The researchers performing the study felt that the water-based exercise program was more beneficial because of the effect of buoyancy, which supports the body weight while reducing the forces on the joints and allowing for greater movements. They also attributed the improvements made by this group to how the warm water assisted in pain control by improving blood circulation and also provided resistance to movements. It is more difficult to move your arms through water than it is to move them through air. Your heart has to work harder to push against the resistance that water provides, and therefore this effect also helped these individuals to build endurance. Moving through water is an added challenge to the body without placing an added stress to already painful joints.
If you think you may benefit from aquatic therapy, contact Total Performance PT to schedule an appointment with a physical therapist.