Aquatic therapy, also known as water therapy or pool therapy, consists of exercises performed in the water. It's quickly becoming well-known for amazing effects on decreasing chronic pain, speeding recovery and improving function. When using aquatic therapy, it's important to understand the benefits of the physical properties of water that assist in patient rehabilitation.
The natural buoyancy of water is one of the prime benefits of exercising in water. When a patient is submerged to the waist in water, up to 50 percent of body weight is supported. For example, a 150-pound person would have approximately 75 pounds of body weight supported in waist-deep water. When a person is submerged neck-deep in water, the percentage of supported body weight increases to around 90 percent. Therefore, the buoyancy of water can help to decrease even more stress placed on injured joints and muscles, allowing patients to exercise more efficiently and with less pain.
Another beneficial property of exercising in water is hydrostatic pressure. This is the external pressure exerted on the body by the water. Hydrostatic pressure helps increase the efficiency of the circulatory system. This increase in blood flow results in increased oxygen and nutrient delivery as well as increased waste product removal, all of which help to promote the healing process. Another advantage to increased circulation and blood flow is decreased swelling in lower extremities, which can aid range of motion and help speed the recovery process.
The warm temperature of the water is another therapeutic benefit of aquatic therapy. Therapy pool temperatures range between 92 and 96 degrees. The warmth of the water allows blood vessels to dilate and blood flow to increase, helping muscle tissue to relax. This warm temperature may also help to reduce stress or anxiety.
The natural resistance of water is another beneficial aspect to exercising in this environment. The resistance of water is much greater than the resistance of air, so patients who exercise in water use many more muscles and have much stronger contractions than they would when exercising on land. Water resistance is also unique because it can be felt in all directions of movement, as opposed to land exercise where the resistance is only felt in one direction. The intensity of the movement (strength of resistance) can be altered by increasing or decreasing the speed or by using equipment such as weights or floats.
These unique properties of water - buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, heat and water resistance - can help to reduce pain and speed recovery. Aquatic therapy can also help improve strength, balance and coordination; increase range of motion, normalize muscle tone, protect joints during exercise and reduce stress on joints.
Many of today's aquatic therapy pools are chlorine-, bromine- and salt-free. This means patients don't have to worry about burning eyes, skin irritation or bleached hair. Systems use copper ionization in the water to kill bacteria (E-coli, Pseudomonas etc.) and algae, which oxidizes, freshens and sanitizes the pool.
These components working together, when initiated early in the rehabilitation process, can decrease recovery times and help make rehabilitation a less painful and more enjoyable experience.
John R. Mishock is owner of Mishock Physical Therapy & Associates, an outpatient physical therapy practice with five locations in southeastern Pennsylvania. Melissa Bennett is an athletic trainer at Mishock Physical Therapy. For more information, visit www.mishockpt.com