You’ve probably heard about Aquatic Therapy before, but why would a doctor refer a patient to an aquatic therapy program? Well, hopefully this brief article will help shed some light on aquatic therapy, it’s benefits, and why one might consider it as a treatment option for an injury or pain.
Let’s start with the basics. As an alternative to, or in addition with land- based physical therapy programs, aquatic physical therapy offers many benefits.
For example, the physical properties of water (buoyancy, laminar flow, hydrostatic pressure, and heat) allow people recovering from injuries, illness or surgeries to participate in active rehabilitation sooner than would be possible on land. That means people who are limited in certain movements on land, may find it easier to move or complete exercises in the water.
For issues such as chronic pain, during the initial phase of functional restoration, water supports the body and reduces stress to the joints allowing muscles to be strengthened and toned. Aquatic therapy is effective at improving circulation, joint mobility, strength, core muscle stability, balance, coordination and endurance. Aquatic exercise can also reduce pain and increase physical function in patients with low back pain . Physical & Occupational therapists trained in aquatic therapy programs can help patients with these pains, limitations, or weaknesses to improve their function and decrease pain through aquatic exercises & activities.
What the Research Shows
Now, sometimes when we talk about research and “scientific literature”, people’s eyes tend to glaze over. However, it is important to understand a bit about the research behind treatment techniques and programs that a doctor or provider may recommend. So the information below, while covering scientific & research information, doesn’t dive too deep into the technical side of things. We do, however, link to all of the cited articles below in the references section, in case someone wants to dive further into the science.
How effective is aquatic therapy to treat low back or neck pain?
In a large systematic review that was published in 2018, researchers found eight trials (or experiments) involving 331 patients as part of their review. The results from these studies showed a relief of pain and improvement in physical function after aquatic exercise . That means there is evidence to support the use of aquatic therapy to treat low back pain. If land-based physical therapy causes pain, or if a patient is limited on land, starting off in the pool with an aquatic therapy program may help relieve pain and help the patient build up to land-based therapy programs.
Another study published in 2020 show that treatment of neck pain using different water-based exercises and techniques resulted in reduced pain and disability, and improved functional capacity, quality of life, joint mobility, balance, relaxation and mood . So, if a patient is experiencing neck pain, aquatic therapy can provide some pain relief and help improve function.
Does aquatic therapy provide benefits for neurological diagnoses like Parkinson’s disease?
In a study that was published in 2020, researchers found a statistically significant difference for mobility in favor of aquatic therapy. The conclusion from that study: Aquatic therapy had positive outcomes for gait, balance and mobility that were comparable to land-based physiotherapy in the early stages of PD . So, for early stage Parkinson’s disease, aquatic therapy can help improve a patient’s ability to walk, increase balance, and help improve mobility. Especially if the patient has instability or a fear of falling on land, aquatic therapy can help increase their mobility and strength with similar results when compared to land-based therapy.
At the end of the day, aquatic therapy has been show to provide may benefits for patients experiencing pain, decreased balance, weakness, and even neurological issues. Now, nothing is going to be a silver bullet or cure-all. But, when included into a complete plan of care, that is directed by competent and knowledgeable clinicians, aquatic therapy can do a lot to help patients overcome pain or weakness, increase strength, and chart their path towards long-term health and well-being. As always, feel free to reach out to our office with any questions about whether aquatic therapy might be an option for you or a loved one.
 Shi, Zhongju MD; Zhou, Hengxing PhD; Lu, Lu PhD; Pan, Bin MD; Wei, Zhijian MD; Yao, Xue PhD; Kang, Yi MM; Liu, Lu MM; Feng, Shiqing PhD Aquatic Exercises in the Treatment of Low Back Pain, American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation: February 2018 – Volume 97 – Issue 2 – p 116-122 doi: 10.1097/PHM.0000000000000801
 Corvillo, I., Armijo, F., Álvarez-Badillo, A. et al. Efficacy of aquatic therapy for neck pain: a systematic review. Int J Biometeorol 64, 915–925 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00484-019-01738-6
 Carroll, Louise M. et al. ‘Is Aquatic Therapy Optimally Prescribed for Parkinson’s Disease? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis’. 1 Jan. 2020 : 59 – 76. doi: 10.3233/JPD-191784