Aquatic Therapy For Pain: When Water Is Better Than Land
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Aquatic Therapy For Pain: When Water Is Better Than Land

Authored by Justin Geisler. May 17, 2023

A patient of mine with an undiagnosed neurologic disease stepped into the aquatic tank we have in our physical therapy practice for the first time recently. On land, her left leg has significant weakness and she has to use a rolling walker — and she has for a decade. But once she stepped inside the aquatic tank and we filled it with water to her chest, she was able to walk — unassisted. When I asked her if she wanted to try jogging, you should have seen the look of delight on her face. She was ecstatic to even try and beyond thrilled when she was able to do it. She kept saying, “I haven’t done something like this in over ten years.”

I’m constantly amazed at the transformations that happen for people inside this aquatic tank. It holds so much promise for helping with healing and recovery. It’s really a game changer. When exercise, physical therapy and strengthening feels impossible on land following a back injury or procedure — or in the face of debilitating pain — that’s often a sign that we have to start in the water with aquatic therapy or hydrotherapy. That’s because it provides a weightless environment that allows patients to perform simple exercises that push the muscles without causing strain.

We use a HydroWorx tank that’s a massive tank filled with water and it has a treadmill at the bottom of it. We manipulate the height of the water — based on how much body weight we want the person to be exercising with — and by adding resistance when appropriate.

If you’ve been curious about aquatic therapy — or think you need it — let’s dive into 3 facts about why it’s helping so many people.

1- Aquatic therapy reduces impact — which is good for pain.

Aquatic therapy provides a nearly weightless environment that offers the ability to improve strength, flexibility, and function to progress recovery. Patients with soft tissue injury, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or orthopedic disorders benefit from the buoyancy (upward force) of the water. Aquatic therapy decreases compression (up to 75%) on your spine and other joints. Performing post-surgical rehabilitation in the water reduces the amount of weight the spine and joints have to support. Water buoyancy supports about 50 percent of a person’s body weight when immersed waist-deep and about 75–90 percent of body weight for a person immersed up to the neck.

2 — It’s comfortable

Water is set at a very comfortable temperature — not only because it’s enjoyable for the patient but because that also provides a cooling environment to post-surgical areas that are usually above average body temperature, 98–101 degrees. Pressure from being immersed in the water facilitates blood circulation, which means your heart works more effectively. You can reduce your target heart rate as much as 17 beats per minute.

3 — Buoyancy aids range of motion

The water creates an advantage (buoyancy effect) which allows patients to perform a range of motion exercises in the pool that they would not be able to perform safely on land. Exercising in water also creates resistance, which can aid in increasing muscle strength and stamina for inactive people. It also helps maintain strength for those who are currently active. For an even greater benefit, resistance devices can be used as a tool to increase the resistance for greater outcomes.

The benefits of aquatic therapy far exceed traditional rehabilitation. It’s also great for increasing flexibility, muscle strength, and balance. It can serve as a precursor to typical land-based physical therapy since it is much easier on the joints and loosens muscle tightness. The gravity-reduced environment allows patients to greatly progress in their recovery when used alongside traditional physical therapy.

Learn more about our HydroWorx underwater treadmill, and be sure to discuss this option with your physical therapist and/or spine surgeon to understand whether it would be appropriate for your rehabilitation plan.

Looking to try aquatic therapy?

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Reviewed by: Justin Geisler.

Reviewed by: Justin Geisler.

About The Author

Justin Geisler, Physical Therapist

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