The Benefits of Aquatic Therapy
Aquatic therapy can be beneficial for people who have suffered injuries and those who are simply looking for a way to improve their body's general strength and mobility. Here is everything you need to know about the advantages of aquatic therapy.
What Is Aquatic Therapy?
Aquatic therapy is a type of physical therapy offered in heated water. During an aquatic therapy session, your trained physical therapist will enter a pool with you and guide you through a series of immersion, floating and movement exercises designed to reduce chronic pain and promote the healing of various injuries.
Exactly how aquatic therapy works, such as the amount of time it takes, the technique and what equipment you use, depends on the individual person, the physical therapist and their goals.
The Different Types of Aquatic Therapy
There are a number of different established approaches to aquatic therapy. Here are some of the most common aquatic therapy techniques.
Ai Chi dates back to the early 1990s. This technique, created by Jun Kunno, typically uses water temperatures between 88 degrees Fahrenheit and 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Once you enter the warm water, your physical therapist will help you achieve a combination of deep breathing and slow movements inspired by the practices of tai chi, shiatsu and qigong.
If you undergo Ai Chi aquatic therapy, you will likely be in water no higher than your shoulders. As you exercise both your arms and legs, you will concentrate on achieving a meditative state of mind. This slower-paced aquatic therapy is often used as a way to improve balance.
Aqua running is exactly what it sounds like, although you do not necessarily need to be sprinting. You can achieve the same benefits of aquatic therapy through jogging. This technique involves using equipment like a flotation belt to help keep the upper body stable while you move through the water. Generally, your head and torso will be above water as you run or jog.
You may run along the bottom of the pool, or your aqua therapist may have an underwater treadmill for this form of therapy. While water alleviates much of the stress your joints would experience if you were to run on land, it also provides more resistance that helps you burn more calories per minute. This form of aquatic therapy is ideal for people who could not achieve the same type of movement and aerobic fitness without the cushion of the pool water.
Bad Ragaz Ring Method
The Bad Ragaz Ring Method was first introduced in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland, during the 1950s. This technique is named for the ring-shaped flotation devices it requires. The person undergoing aquatic therapy will lie back with the flotation devices supporting them. The water used during Bad Ragaz Ring Method aquatic therapy sessions will likely be as deep as your waist or your shoulders. As you float, you do a number of different movements meant to improve your endurance and range of motion. This aquatic therapy concept commonly addresses chronic pain.
Igor Burdenko pioneered the Burdenko Method, a style of aquatic therapy that combines therapy in the water and on the land. This method is often used for athletes with sports injuries. The technique emphasizes flexibility, coordination and strength. Aquatic therapy programs that use the Burdenko Method generally begin the water and gradually transition to land as the person regains strength and the injury begins to heal.
The Halliwick Concept is a ten-step program created in the 1940s and 1950s to help people with disabilities gain more balance and core strength. The ten steps of the program include:
- Mental adjustment: Understanding body movement in the water
- Sagittal rotation control: Learning to control body movements in an upright position
- Transversal rotation control: Understanding body movements when in a reclined position
- Longitudinal rotation control: Understanding body movement in a supine position
- Combined rotation control: Understanding rotational movement in the water
- Upthrust/mental inversion: Understanding you will not sink in the water
- Balance in stillness: Learning to maintain a stable position in the water while moving
- Turbulent gliding: Moving through the water with the therapist
- Simple progression: Making simple swimming movements
- Basic Halliwick movement: A swimming stroke involving arm movements
You are probably familiar with the basics of massage therapy performed on land, but massage therapists can also take their practice into the water. Aquatic massage therapy typically takes place in warm water. The therapist will approach problem areas with typical massage therapy techniques while the person stands, sits or floats in the water. This technique allows for a great deal of personalization based on the individual and the therapist.
Pilates is another exercise typically performed on land, but it has been adapted to become a form of aquatic therapy as well. Pilates, named for creator Joseph Pilates, was designed to help injured athletes return to their sports.
This type of exercise focuses on improving:
- Muscle tone and strength
- Body awareness
Pilates can also help practitioners enhance mental concentration and serve as a form of stress management. The principles and benefits of Pilates can be translated to the water. This form of aquatic therapy can be tailored to fit any skill level.
Yoga and Pilates are similar forms of exercise. Like Pilates, yoga can translate into a form of aquatic therapy. There are a number of different yoga varieties, but Hatha yoga is typically the type adapted for aquatic therapy. Hatha yoga is a slower-paced technique that focuses on physical exercise, mental concentration and controlled breathing.
When it comes to water yoga, you generally perform the movements of Hatha yoga in water that comes up to your waist or your chest. The water offers more stability and resistance as you go through the yoga postures that push your body to gain flexibility and strength.
Watsu Water Therapy
Watsu Water Therapy is a combination of a number of different practices, all performed in warm water. This type of aquatic therapy draws on elements from dance, massage, shiatsu and muscle strengthening exercises. The warm water offers more freedom of movement than you would have on land, while rhythmic movements gently build strength and flexibility. People with chronic pain, movement restriction, and post-operative pain can benefit from Watsu. Like many other forms of therapy, Watsu has room for customization based on the needs of each individual person.
Aquatic Therapy for Injury Recovery
The benefits of water rehab are wide-ranging, which means it can be helpful for different conditions. Here are just a few of the conditions that could benefit from aquatic therapy:
- Chronic pain
- Joint reconstruction or replacement surgery
- Spinal injury
- Traumatic brain injury
How Long Does Aqua Rehab for Injuries Take?
When dealing with an injury, the length of your recovery will be one of your most pressing concerns. Recovery time will depend on a lot of different factors, including the type of injury and the individual. Here are a few that can benefit from aquatic therapy:
- Bone fractures: three to 10 weeks
- Sprains: days to months
- Torn ACL: up to six months
- Achilles tendon injuries: four months to six months
The Advantages of Water Rehab
Undergoing water therapy while rehabbing an injury has plenty of benefits. Here are a few you should consider if you have the opportunity to get aquatic therapy.
Water Therapy Offers a Safe and Comfortable Environment
Aquatic therapy can give you tangible goals early on in your recovery process. The inactivity necessitated by injury can be very frustrating for many people, particularly athletes. People with injuries can often begin water therapy before they can attempt land-based rehabilitation. It might take time to overcome reservations about water-based therapy, but once you are in the water, you will find you are in a completely safe and comfortable environment.
The warm water cushions and supports your body, which helps your muscles relax. You do not need to fear falling, which could lead to reinjuring yourself and adding time to recovery goals. Plus, your therapist will be with you the entire time, guiding your body's movements and offering hands-on assistance.
Aqua Rehab Results in Hydrostatic Pressure
Hydrostatic pressure refers to the amount of pressure created by the weight of water. This is one of the biggest benefits of aquatic therapy. This pressure can help reduce pain and swelling. It also allows the body to exercise with a lower heart rate.
Water compresses your entire body, which makes your heart and lungs work harder, which in turn can translate into improved breathing capacity when you are on land. Feeling sore during injury rehab is inevitable, but one of the benefits of aqua rehab is reduced muscle soreness. All of the benefits of hydrostatic pressure often mean your body will feel much less sore than it would if you performed the same exercises on land.
Aqua Rehab Provides Improved Therapist Access
It might feel strange to change into a swimsuit for a therapy session, but getting in the water can make your therapist's job much easier. On land, many therapy techniques require you to lie down on a table. When you do this, your therapist can only touch one side of your body at a time. They may need to ask you to turn over or move several times during a therapy session.
This is much less of an issue during an aquatic therapy session. You can float in a reclined position while your therapist swims around your body. They can access any part of your body without asking you to move at all. You will probably still need to reposition your body throughout the water therapy session, but you will be able to move easily through the water as directed by your therapist.
Water Therapy Means Less Stress on Your Joints
When you recover from an injury, the last thing you want to worry about is putting undue stress on your joints. Or you could be recovering from a joint injury. In any case, there are plenty of ways to avoid unnecessary stress on the joints during land-based therapy, but aquatic therapy offers a great alternative. Your body is buoyant in water, which means your body weight puts less pressure on your joints. In fact, when you are submerged in water weight bearing decreases by up to 90 percent.
This means anyone will experience less pressure on their joints. It also means people who may not be able to support their own weight on land will be able to move through water with little to no support from a therapist. With less weight bearing, you can use aquatic therapy to focus on increasing your muscle strength and flexibility during your rehab period. One study found that aquatic therapy led to a 10 percent to 18 percent improvement in strength and range of motion in women with arthritis.
Aquatic Therapy Gives Pain Relief and Swelling Reduction
As we mentioned, hydrostatic pressure can result in reduced pain and swelling, which you are probably dealing with if you have injured yourself. When you are submerged in warm water, your body increases its blood supply to muscles. This helps your muscles relax, relieving some pain and swelling.
Plus, decreasing weight-bearing gives your body an additional break that can relieve pain. Warm water, in general, will offer a comfortable environment that helps your entire body relax. Water dulls your sense of touch, which means the pain or discomfort caused by an injury or muscle soreness may also be dulled.
Muscle Memory Improvement Comes With Water Therapy
Following an injury, our bodies need time to recover, but this downtime can mean our muscles become atrophied. Movements we once took for granted get choppy and difficult to complete. Aquatic therapy can help our bodies regain muscle memory. Water resistance forces our bodies to move slower, which gives our brain more time to communicate with our muscles. Repeating these slower movements over and over rebuilds the muscle memory you might have lost during your recovery period.
Aquatic Therapy for General Strength and Mobility Training
Aquatic therapy is an excellent option for people recovering from injuries, but it does not have to be limited to injury recovery. People who are seeking ways to improve their general strength and mobility can also benefit from aquatic exercises. You still have the option to work with a licensed aquatic physical therapist, but you can also integrate some of the exercises into your own aquatic workout routine. Here are a few of the benefits you can expect from aquatic therapy as a strength and mobility training technique:
- Improved muscle strength and flexibility: Strength and flexibility are two of the common goals of any form of exercise, and you can certainly improve both through aquatic therapy techniques. The additional resistance of water challenges your muscles and pushes them to become stronger. Being submerged in water also allows you gently stretch your limbs and joints without too much stress, which helps you slowly build more flexibility.
- Stress reduction: In general, exercise plays an important role in reducing stress, and aquatic therapy is no exception. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that make us feel good. Reducing any discomfort you feel through aquatic therapy can be a major step toward stress management. The controlled breathing and meditative nature of the exercises can become a valuable stress management tool in and out of the pool. Regular exercise, like aquatic therapy, can serve as a natural mood booster and stress reliever.
- Body awareness: It might sound strange, but it can be easy to fall out of touch with our own bodies. We grow used to a routine and forget to use all of our different muscles. Getting in the water and focusing on aquatic therapy can change that. The various exercises require you to move different parts of your body in specific ways, promoting greater balance, stability and posture. All of these things help us to become more aware of our bodies.
Aquatic Therapy Equipment
Much of aquatic therapy is focused on your body and its movement, but your therapist might integrate different pieces of equipment into your therapy session. Equipment can help you stay afloat or further challenge your muscles. Here are some of the common aquatic therapy equipment options.
Aquatic Therapy Equipment: Floats
Floats are one of the key pieces of equipment during aquatic therapy. Floats will help you perform a number of different exercises. They are also a helpful tool for anyone who is a little unsure of how to support their bodies in the water.
A float can be as simple as a pool noodle, which you have likely seen kids play with at the pool. Pool noodles are long and flexible, which means they can easily wrap around your body. You can rest your hips, shoulders, torso or back on the noodle to help you float as you go through the various exercises. Other types of float equipment options include:
Each of these pieces of equipment offers additional buoyancy, which will help you achieve the goals of a variety of aquatic therapy exercises.
Aquatic Therapy Equipment: Weights
Weights offer greater resistance and strength training during aquatic therapy. How much weight you use and what type of weight equipment you use will depend on your injury, your goals and your therapist's guidance. Here are a few examples:
- You might hold exercise balls as you perform the different movements in the water. Exercise balls might be as light as just a couple of pounds or weigh several pounds.
- Lighter weights are great for muscle toning, while heavier weights are helpful for building strength. Instead of exercise balls, you might use hand bars, similar to the barbells you would see in a gym.
- Exercise balls and bars are hand-held, but there is another type of weight you wear on your body. Wrist and ankle weights help ground you in the water and add more resistance for strength training.
- Resistance gloves are another type of wearable weight used during aquatic therapy.
Aquatic Therapy Equipment: Gym Equipment
During your therapy session, you may have access to gym equipment specifically designed for use in the water. For example, you might try an underwater treadmill. While you could easily employ a treadmill on land, using one during aquatic therapy offers many of the benefits we have already touched on:
- You can walk or jog on the treadmill without putting nearly as much stress on your joints.
- As you walk or run on the treadmill in a low-impact environment, you can improve your gait, muscle strength and stamina.
- You might wear weights or floats as you use the treadmill.
A stationary bicycle is another common type of gym equipment used during aquatic therapy. Just like the submerged treadmill, the aquatic stationary bicycle will provide the benefits of the equipment, like stamina, cardio and strength training, in a low-impact environment.
Purchase Aqua Rehab Equipment From The Lifeguard Store
If you think aquatic therapy sounds right for you, consider investing in the proper equipment. Visit the water aerobics section of The Lifeguard Store to browse fitness swimwear, floats and weights designed for aquatic therapy and exercise.
Learn More About Aquatic Fitness: