Many of the disorders and diseases that can be treated in conventional land-based physical therapy can also be treated in aquatic physical therapy. In aquatic physical therapy, a patient exercises in a therapeutic pool, assisted and supervised by a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant. Aquatic physical therapy makes use of the buoyancy and resistance that are natural properties of water to help facilitate the physical therapy treatment program. Goals of an aquatic physical therapy program may include improved joint range of motion or flexibility, increased strength, improved cardiovascular condition and endurance, increased postural or core stabilization, as well as many others.
An aquatic physical therapy program begins like any other physical therapy program: with a thorough evaluation. Based on the findings of this examination, deficits in a patient's physical function are identified and an individual treatment program is designed. The goals that guide the treatment are based on the patient's own personal goals for treatment as well as the problems the physical therapist has identified.
For certain patients, an aquatic environment is a better choice than land for physical therapy, although the long-term goal is often to progress to land. As water provides buoyancy, the effects of weight and gravity are decreased. For patients with very painful joints, or those not yet able to bear full weight across a joint, the water is a supportive environment. This allows motion and strength to return safely, and often helps to relieve pain. Water also provides either support or resistance to motion, depending on the speed of the movement. This means that a patient can progress from assisted motion to resistance training easily and as each joint or muscle group is ready. The total contact of the water can also help to decrease muscle spasticity in certain patients, making normal motion easier.
Although aquatic therapy can benefit a large number of patients, it is not for everyone. There are a number of conditions that would make it unsafe to have a patient participate in aquatic physical therapy. Open wounds, certain skin conditions, bowel or bladder incontinence are contraindications to aquatic physical therapy. Patients with decreased lung function also may not be good candidates for aquatic physical therapy as the pressure of the water may make it more difficult to breathe. Patients who are unable to safely get in and out of the pool on their own as well as those who are fearful of the water are also not good candidates for aquatic physical therapy. For these patients, land-based therapy is more appropriate. For others, who are generally functioning at a high enough level on land, the support of the water is not needed. During the initial evaluation, the physical therapist will make this determination.
Lakeland Rehabilitation Services at the Health Park on Hollywood Road, in St. Joseph, and Lakeland Rehabilitation Services in Niles, at the YMCA, offer aquatic physical therapy services. A doctor's prescription is required for physical therapy services of any kind, including aquatic physical therapy. If you think that you or someone you know would benefit from aquatic physical therapy, talk to your doctor. For more information, or to make an appointment with a physical therapist at a facility that provides aquatic physical therapy, call (269) 428-2799 for the St. Joseph site or (269) 683-6800 for Niles site.