What are the benefits of aquatic physical therapy? Consider getting wet in order to get better.

with advice from Kelly Lenz, PT
and Blair J. Packard, PT, MS

 What are the benefits of aquatic physical therapy?

When most people think of physical therapy, they probably think of treadmills and stationary bikes, hand weights and elastic bands — plus the medical tables on which patients can be treated. Without getting wet.

So why might aquatic physical therapy be just as beneficial, or even better?

“Aquatic therapy allows a gravity-reduced environment in which to exercise,” explains Kelly Lenz, a physical therapist and co-owner of Clinton Physical Therapy Center, a Physiquality network clinic in Tennessee. “This allows a variety of patients to move more freely without undue stress on their body.”

Buoyancy can be used to assist, support or resist motion. Image used with permission from East Valley Physical Therapy.This is possible because of one special property of water: buoyancy. Because of buoyancy, the gravitational forces on the body are reduced, giving some patients immediate pain relief. “Buoyancy can be used to assist, support or resist motion,” says physical therapist Blair J. Packard, the co-owner of East Valley Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member in Arizona. “It also opposes gravity to provide spinal and joint unloading.”

There are other benefits to doing therapy in a pool as compared to on land:

  • Patients who are only able to do traditional exercises for a short period of time are often able to exercise for longer periods of time, with more intensity.
  • Patients with poor balance do well in the water as the water helps support them — and if they do fall, the water slows down the fall.
  • Patients with edema often see a reduction in swelling, as the water pressure increases venous return to the heart.

Aquatic therapy is especially helpful for patients with lower extremity injuries or issues. Image used with permission from Clinton Physical Therapy Center.Aquatic therapy can help a variety of patients, but Kelly notes that it’s especially helpful for those with lower extremity injuries or issues — arthritis in the knees or hips, leg fractures where patients are just starting to put weight on the bone again, or pain in the lower back or lumbar spine. It’s also been shown to help patients with disorders like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. And the American Physical Therapy Association points out that a pool is the perfect environment for aging individualsthat have the normal degeneration that occurs with aging.

Don’t worry if you don’t know how to swim — therapy in a pool is used to improve function, mobility, strength and balance, not actual swimming. Most pools are fairly shallow in order to allow the patients and therapists to stand and walk in the water. For example, Blair points out, the depths in the pool at East Valley PT range from three and a half feet to five feet. And if patients are still uncomfortable with the water, special adaptive equipment will help them keep their head above the water’s edge.

Not all physical therapy clinics offer aquatic therapy, and even if your physical therapist does offer it, it may not be the best treatment for your condition. But if your PT suggests getting into the pool to become stronger and improve your health, consider getting wet in order to get better.

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