Many people can benefit from aquatic therapy treatment, and not just for injury rehab. Regardless of your age, condition, body shape, or weight, water provides a forgiving and supportive space to move in. With unique properties like buoyancy and resistance in all planes, aquatic therapy in the water allows you to exercise with ease while building confidence and muscle strength.
With all these benefits, the natural next question is “can aquatic therapy help me?” And it’s a great question because aquatic therapy is especially helpful for certain types of people. Read on to learn about which people get the most benefit from pool sessions (as opposed to the gym) and why.
Who Is Aquatic Therapy Therapy for?
What people who can most benefit from Aquatic Therapy have in common is they are usually people who have difficulty with weight bearing. Some examples particular examples are: people who have had a hip or knee replacement, seniors, people with neuro-motor disorders, people with arthritis, pregnant people or people experiencing obesity. Standing in waist or chest depth water can drastically reduce loading on your joints.
The water is also optimal for exercise if you struggle with balance or walking. Aquatic therapy not only allows you to move more comfortably, you’ll also have one-on-one guidance and support for getting stronger at your own pace.
As we get older it becomes more important to maintain our strength and flexibility to continue to be independent with the activities of daily living. I’ve talked about the importance of exercise and working with a kinesiologist for seniors more in depth in the blog post ‘Who Can Benefit From Kinesiology’. To summarize, continuing to be active and resistance training as you age can drastically decrease your risk of falling and landing a bed in the hospital with a broken bone or injured hip.
Aging comes with natural changes to our bodies that affect the way we move such as slower reaction time and limited range of motion. Our vestibular system, which tells our brain where we are in space and how fast we are moving, deteriorates over time which can lead to dizziness and difficulty with balance. As we age our blood vessels also start to lose their elasticity and ability to move our blood around from one part of our body to the other.
Exercising in the aquatic environment can support us when these changes are happening in our bodies. Losing your balance can be very disorienting when it comes to being active, and can affect your confidence in the gym due to the fear of falling. he pool, where falling has few-to-no consequences, creates a safe environment to work on balance and coordination.
With shallow water and floating aids like noodles and waist belts, you can move your body with less stress about falling or injuring yourself. Exercise in the water also helps with circulation because the hydrostatic pressure that water provides improves the body’s ability to bring blood back to the heart.
People with joint issues like osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis
The largest benefit that aquatic therapy has for people with joint issues is the ability to move with reduced gravity forces. For many people pressure due to gravity while walking on inflamed or degenerating joints is really painful and restrictive. Unfortunately, the pain people experience from arthritis causes people to move their joints less, and disuse of the joint makes pain from arthritis worse.
Cue aquatic therapy, where the pool is a place of relief. Imagine being in the water up to your shoulders and how much the force of gravity on your joints is reduced, by up to 90%, and getting a sense of weightlessness. Lower pressure means less pain which in turn means joints can continue to move and heal more effectively. Some simple exercises in water for arthritis are water walking or squatting. Another plus is that you don't need to be in deep water to benefit from aquatic therapy-waist to shoulder height works great.
For joint pain, spending more time in the hot tub can be really helpful for easing into movements and exercises. The warmth of the water allows your muscles and tissues around an arthritic joint to relax and become more flexible. The added flexibility will help with gaining or maintaining mobility.
Going back to hydrostatic pressure, in addition to helping with circulation, it can also aid with reducing swelling that may occur around the joint. The deeper the joint is submerged the greater the benefit to swelling from hydrostatic pressure.
People with injuries from a motor vehicle accident (MVA)
Cars are great but accidents occur. Trauma from car accidents, or MVA’s range from minor to very complex injuries, affecting drivers, passengers, cyclists or pedestrians.
Complex traumatic injuries are multi-faceted, meaning they affect many parts of the body at once due to bracing against the vector of impact and resulting lateral forces of the collision.
For some who have suffered these types of injuries, it can be hard to know where to start when moving towards returning to daily function. A major barrier is the pain from these injuries. Pain can even make walking or taking care of yourself a challenge. Aquatic therapy is a very helpful therapy when someone experiences complex injuries and pain.
Working with an aquatic therapist after an accident is the perfect way to start rehab. With the calming effects of water on the nervous system, using the water as gentle resistance in all planes to return to basic movement makes basic patterns like walking, lifting, pushing and pulling easier.
People experiencing chronic pain
Because moving in the pool is very gentle on the joints and muscles, it can reduce the barriers to starting to move when you are experiencing chronic pain.
An exercise as simple as floating with two pool noodles can help release tension in the lower or upper back muscles, providing pain relief. Regaining basic movement allows you to strengthen and rehabilitate the injured tissues. This in turn has a positive feedback effect on the area of your body adjacent to your injury by reducing pain and facilitating more movement. Exercising in the pool, both in cool and warm water, also helps with emotional relaxation which further improves sleep which also helps pain levels. Finally, warm water in the hot tub soothes sore muscles to make moving easier.
People who are overweight/obese
People who are overweight or obese are more likely to experience land based movement or exercise to be daunting or painful. An aquatic therapy program provides these clients a solution that helps reduce some barriers to getting moving. Exercising in the pool supports your whole body underneath the water so that less stress is applied to the joints. Overweight and obese people are able to walk with less pain and participate in activities, for example water running with a flotation belt, that they find too challenging on land.
People with neuro-motor disabilities
Spinal cord injuries, Parkinsons, stroke impairments and multiple sclerosis are some of the conditions that impair your ability to move on your own in a dry-land environment like your home or gym. The level of control over your muscles and general muscle strength is diminished if you are living with a neuro-motor disability. This increases the likelihood of falling and may result in wheelchair or walking aid dependence for everyday tasks.
For people with a neuro-motor disease it is particularly important to maintain and improve muscle strength because this can be the difference between something like gripping your spoon or cup by yourself to eat or requiring assistance. Increased core and lower body strength impacts your ability to roll in bed, transfer to and from your wheelchair, and sit up in a chair.
Improving strength and mobility in the water can be very beneficial for people with neuro-muscular impairments. The added buoyancy of the water allows people to stand upright and practice walking where they would otherwise be unable to without a lift. Moving limbs is less demanding in the pool when moving slowly and the water can provide resistance in many different directions. For those experiencing muscle spasms, the water environment can be much more forgiving for unexpected movements such as kicks or twists. The environment also reduces the risk of falling and injury.
Most pools that are accessible to the public have chair lifts, ramps, and ‘water’ chairs to allow people who use wheelchairs or have limited mobility to use the facilities. That is the case here in Vancouver, BC which is a large city with great public amenities. If you live in a smaller town it’s best to inquire about your local facilities before starting with aquatic therapy.
During pregnancy the body will undergo many changes, particularly with fluctuations in hormone levels. Relaxin, a hormone that relaxes the muscles, joints, and ligaments is produced at higher levels when you are pregnant and makes the body more prone to injuries while exercising at higher intensities. Mothers are therefore recommended to exercise at low to moderate intensities during their pregnancies.
Aquatic therapy is a low-impact therapy that allows parents to move and exercise in a way that is not harmful to them or the baby. In later trimesters, water can help support the weight of the baby, which can relieve pressure from the low back and pelvic floor. For many soon-to-be moms experiencing low back pain and discomfort this can be a much needed relief. Additionally, some mothers will experience swelling in the legs during pregnancy. Here the hydrostatic properties of water therapy can help by improving circulation and therefore reducing the discomfort in the lower limbs.
If you relate to any of these groups of people, or know someone who does, I would strongly recommend diving further (pun intended!) into this unique and therapeutic form of rehabilitation. Working with a therapist in the water not only helps with getting you stronger and more able to perform activities of daily living, it's also a fun and interactive way to approach exercise and movement. Learn more about aquatic therapy and how you can start doing it by booking a free consultation with one of our kinesiologists today.