It seems hydrotherapy is getting more and more popular with Aussie seniors these days. It’s said to help relieve muscle tension, reduce joint stiffness, and improve pain.
But what is hydrotherapy? How does it work, and who is it suitable for?
Hydrotherapy, or aquatic therapy, involves immersion in water to help with recovery and rehabilitation following an injury or serious illness, such as following a total hip replacement or stroke. Movement, water temperature and depth can vary depending on the type of injury, past medical history, and the facilities available.
In essence, the goal of hydrotherapy is to aid in muscle relaxation, improve joint mobility and reduce pain.
How does it work?
There are a few defining factors that set hydrotherapy apart from alternative therapies. These proprieties include buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure (explained below) and water temperature.
Buoyancy provides an upthrust pressure that opposes the force of gravity. When an individual is in the water, the two forces work against each other to provide a feeling of weightlessness. The deeper the water, the less ‘weight’ an individual will feel and the easier it will feel to move. The shallower the water, the more ‘weight’ they feel. For example, initially following a total hip replacement, an individual may be prescribed an activity of walking up and down the pool with the water at chest height. As they progress, this water height will be reduced to make the exercise harder.
Hydrostatic pressure works on the principle of Pascal’s law. This states that fluid pressure is exerted equally on all surface areas of an immersed body. Therefore, the deeper the water, the more pressure applied to the body. This is significant when treating swelling, as the pressure of the water helps push blood back into circulation, resulting in a reduction in fluid retention.
Hydrotherapy or ‘therapy’ pools, are often set at 33-36 degrees Celsius. This level means the body can maintain its temperature, which can help reduce the sensitivity of sensory nerve endings, providing an optimal environment to exercise for those who may be otherwise restricted due to pain.
During immersion, there is a rise in body temperature from both the water and the contracting muscles performing exercises. This increase in the body’s temperature allows for muscle tone to diminish, allowing greater joint movement.
Who can participate in hydrotherapy?
While hydrotherapy is a fantastic activity for anyone who would like to manage pain and improve mobility, it is important to have your medical history assessed to ensure there are no further actions that need to be considered.
Some actions may be simple, such a ensuring you exercise in a lower temperature pool if you have multiple sclerosis to avoid exacerbating your symptoms, or ensuring you have fast-acting medication poolside if you have exercise-induced asthma.
Chat first to your GP if you have any of the following conditions:
- cardiac condition
- peripheral vascular disease
- respiratory condition
- open wound
- febrile condition
- renal impairment
- acute inflammatory condition
- swallowing problem
- deep radiotherapy in past three months
- infectious disease
Does it really work?
There is a plethora of high-quality evidence to suggest that aquatic therapy can help improve pain, function, self-efficacy, joint mobility, strength and balance – particularly among the older population.
While land-based programs can provide similar results, exercising in water may allow individuals to perform exercises they would be unable to perform on land and can therefore provide additional benefits.
As always, if you are unsure how to get started, contact your physiotherapist who can create a personalised program. Enjoy the pool!
Article written by Maddy Wrigley (Physiotherapist)
Geytenbeek, J (2002). ‘Evidence for effective hydrotherapy’, Physiotherapy, 88, 9, 514-529.
Batterham et al. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2011, 12:123