Physical therapy can be a rewarding career for any professional. But unlike other health professions, the practice of aquatic physical therapy allows you to work and wear your bathing suit! Because of the immense therapeutic powers of water, a whole practice area has grown around the use of warmed pools for treatment and rehabilitation programs, as well as wellness and fitness programs.
Benefits of an aquatic environment.
Many of the unique qualities of the aquatic physical therapy environment make it well suited for patients of all ages with a variety of diseases, conditions, and disorders. If practiced in a supervised and controlled environment, aquatic therapy allows physical therapists to provide interventions in a safer, less painful, and more therapeutic manner.
- Buoyancy – Water is naturally buoyant and therefore helps to support the weight of a patient. This added support reduces the degree of weight bearing needed, which in turn reduces stress upon joints and muscles. For patients dealing with arthritis, healing bone fractures, or obesity, exercises can be completed with less discomfort. Water buoyancy also provides natural compression, which improves circulation and promotes healing.
- Viscosity– Because water is a viscous substance, it provides a source of resistance which can allow muscles to be strengthened without the use of weights. This factor is beneficial for patients whose conditions require reduced weight bearing or who do not have the strength needed to use weights.
- Hydrostatic pressure—Hydrostatic pressure is a phenomenon that produces forces perpendicular to the body’s surface. Such pressure provides greater joint positional awareness, which is beneficial to paints with sprained joins or torn ligaments. The pressure also decreases joint and soft tissue swelling.
- Warmth— The use of heated water in aquatic therapy helps muscles to relax and dilates blood vessels, increasing the flow of blood to injured areas. For patients with back pain, muscle spasms, or fibromyalgia, for example, the therapeutic benefits are great.
Effectiveness of aquatic physical therapy.
The therapeutic properties of aquatic therapy can provide the following health benefits:
- Improved circulation
- Improved aerobic capacity
- Improved strength, endurance, and power
- Increased flexibility and range of motion
- Improved balance, agility, and coordination
- Normalized muscle tone
- Reduced stress
- Decreased swelling
Conditions benefiting from aquatic physical therapy.
Because of the above properties and benefits, aquatic physical therapy is helpful to individuals with a wide range of conditions, including the following:
- Athletic injuries
- Chronic pain
- Joint replacements
- Neurological disorders
- Conditions requiring limited weight bearing
- Post-surgical weakness
Although aquatic therapy can be extremely beneficial for many conditions, people with cardiac disease, fevers, or infections are not appropriate for this treatment modality.
Aquatic therapy interventions.
Unlike the “aquatic exercises” performed in many recreational centers, aquatic physical therapy uses evidence-based practices that are provided by or under the supervision of a physical therapist. A trained professional is best able to determine the most appropriate interventions and what problems can best be addressed. Common interventions include:
- Endurance conditioning
- Postural stabilization
- Therapeutic exercise
- Manual therapies
- Functional training
- Breathing strategies
- Electrotherapeutic modalities
- Mechanical modalities
- Physical agents
A therapist may often use weights, tube flotation devices, kickboards and other tools to control the intensity of the therapy or provide additional support to the patient.
No specialty certification is available yet in aquatic physical therapist, but PTs can receive continuing education hours in techniques and general guidelines. Whatever your physical therapy practice, you can incorporate aquatic therapy into your work and watch your patients reap the benefits.