Physical therapy helps people recover from serious injuries, surgery, or chronic pain. Aquatic therapy is a form of physical therapy, but exercising in water creates unique advantages for patients.
Rebuilding range of motion and muscle strength can take months, if not years, of dedicated effort. Aquatic exercise offers a number of benefits that will speed recovery, boost muscle capability, and help reduce pain.
7 Surprising Benefits of Aquatic Therapy include:
1) Hydrostatic Pressure
Hydrostatic pressure, or the force exerted by a fluid on an immersed body, is a key to aquatic therapy. Hydrostatic pressure begins as soon as a patient steps into the pool.
Because water is thicker than air, it compresses the skin, muscles, and joints, and causes the heart and lungs to work against the pressure on the chest cavity. In essence, immersion creates a compression wrap for the whole body.
According to Brainline.org, hydrostatic pressure decreases pain and edema, which can increase range of motion. It also increases venous return and circulation by assisting the heart and decreasing blood pooling in extremities. Many of the following benefits of aquatic therapy are created by hydrostatic pressure.
2) Better Circulation
Hydrostatic pressure acts as a constant but gentle compressor for a patient’s heart. Combined with the warm water of an aquatic therapy pool, this pressure promotes circulation by dilating blood vessels, increasing blood flow to the extremities. In other words, aquatic therapy helps each patient’s heart push oxygen-rich blood throughout the body more efficiently, which promotes healing.
3) Relaxed Muscles
One of the most important benefits of aquatic therapy is muscle relaxation. Improved circulation carries lactic acid away from the muscles, which causes soreness when it builds up. A patient’s sore muscles can reduce motivation and the likelihood of a full recovery. Relaxed muscles also reduce the chance of an overtraining injury, and decrease stress on the body as it heals.
4) Reduced Sensitivity
The constant stimulus of hydrostatic pressure dampens the connection of touch to the brain by turning down the body’s reticular activating system. This component of the nervous system helps to calm patients who might have a negative response to touch, allowing them to focus on therapeutic exercises with hands-on guidance from a physical therapist.
The reduced sensitivity also dulls muscle pain, enabling patients to stretch and reach full range of motion more easily during their sessions.
5) Increased Resistance
The hydrostatic pressure created by immersion also provides more resistance for exercises. Aquatic physical therapy, as well as athletic activities like swimming or water polo, require more energy than land-based workouts because of this resistance, and do not restrict movement or require bulky equipment.
Patients committed to aquatic physical therapy can rebuild muscle fibers more efficiently through water-based exercise. The water’s resistance and buoyancy also helps patients regain balance by reducing the ability to fall during therapy.
6) Rebuilding Muscle Memory
GuideDoc notes that aquatic therapy makes rebuilding muscle memory easier for patients with neuromuscular impairments.
Exercising in water – in a therapeutic environment or otherwise – requires a stronger focus on taking the muscle through its full range of motion properly, because the body cannot move as quickly.
Because their movements are slowed by immersion, the brain can process signals from the muscles more thoroughly because it has more time, an ideal benefit for rebuilding muscle memory.
7) Easier Access for PTs
Finally, land-based physical rehab forces the physical therapist to only work with one side of a patient’s body at a time because of the table or bed supporting the patient. In contrast, the water’s buoyancy and support allows the therapist to move around a patient’s body more easily, treating all parts of the body without requiring the patient to re-adjust for the next exercise.
In short, aquatic therapy makes it easier for both patients and physical therapists to maximize their time and achieve the best possible results from rehabilitation.