When you live on an island, you develop a special relationship with the water. We paddle, swim, surf, and SUP for exercise, live in our bathing suits, and are never far from a beautiful beach or swimming pool. Not only does the water provide us with stunning landscapes, sustenance, and a playground for recreational activities, it also gives us a valuable environment in which to rehabilitate after an injury.
Like land-based therapy, aquatic therapy is effective in promoting flexibility, increasing range of motion, strengthening muscles, improving balance, and addressing spasticity, but has a few special properties that make it worth a try. From acute sports-related injuries to chronic pain, aquatic therapy is indicated for a wide range of ailments thanks to several therapeutic properties:
- The buoyant nature of water allows for decreased weight-bearing forces on joints, allowing patients to exercise with greater ease and comfort. This is particularly appealing for patients with degeneration of the spine or osteoarthritis in the peripheral joints.
- The hydrostatic pressure of water acts to decrease swelling associated with injury and improve circulation by driving fluid from the extremities back toward the heart.
- And because of its viscosity, water provides a continuous source of resistance in all directions that often cannot be easily achieved on land. For example, the simple motion of bending and straightening your knee under water works both the hamstrings and quadriceps at the same level of resistance throughout the full range of motion. The combination of hydrostatic pressure and viscosity also help to give proprioceptive feedback to the nervous system, improving the body’s joint position sense and brain map of the involved area, which are often compromised or distorted after injuries.
Due to these properties, aquatic therapy can particularly be helpful with people who find it difficult to exercise on land, including individuals managing osteoarthritis, recovering from surgery, or living with neurological impairments due to spinal cord injury or stroke. Physical therapists use a variety of modalities to enable movement and restore function. Water can be a valuable tool toward this end, one that not only speeds recovery, but makes movement more pleasant in the process.
Torres-Ronda, L & Schelling i del Alcazar, X. The properties of water and their applications for training. J Hum Kinet. 2014:44:237-248.
White, M. 1995. Water Exercise. Houston: Human Kinetics.