Boy swimming assisted by a teacher and kickboard

Hydrotherapy (Aqua Therapy)

Hydrotherapy, sometimes referred to as aquatic therapy or hydrotherapy, is, put simply, the therapeutic use of water. The use of water as a form of therapy is an ancient practice; Greeks and Romans bathed in hot springs for relaxation and improved circulation thousands of years ago, but the professional field of aquatic therapy is relatively new. It is most commonly comprised of treatments and exercises performed in a water therapy pool, often heated, for relaxation, fitness, and physical rehabilitation.

What is Hydrotherapy?

The National Institute of Health explains, “Hydrotherapy is the external or internal use of water in any of its forms (water, ice, steam) for health promotion or treatment of various diseases with various temperatures, pressure, duration, and site.” The National Rehabilitation Information Center website states,“ According to the Aquatic Physical Therapy Section of the American Physical Therapy Association, aquatic therapy or aquatic physical therapy (APT) is ‘the evidence-based and skilled practice of physical therapy in an aquatic environment by a physical therapist.’” As you can see there are subtle nuances between hydrotherapy and aquatic therapy, most notably, though, hydrotherapy includes the consumption of water as a component of treatment.

What Happens During Hydrotherapy?

Therapeutic interventions for adults and children with varying levels of ability and a variety of conditions/disorders, are enhanced within an aquatic environment. Water reduces a human’s body weight by 90 percent, allowing adults and children alike to move freely without the forces of gravity and body weight on the musculoskeletal system. The website says, “Under the supervision of a trained and certified professional therapist, aqua therapy provides deep, intense exercise within a soothing and comforting environment…Water buoyancy makes aerobic and anaerobic exercises safe and effective by allowing an individual to ambulate freely.” Individualized exercises and provisions, such as lifts and assistive technology, are made for children and adults with special mobility needs.

What Is The Role of the Hydrotherapy Practitioner?

Practitioners of aquatic therapy are usually physical or occupational therapists who meet certification requirements, but other medical professionals in good standing and properly licensed in their chosen field may also become certified aquatic therapists. When meeting with a hydrotherapy practitioner, a patient’s age, physical condition and cognitive abilities will be considered to ensure a safe environment and the best therapeutic benefit. During the therapy sessions, the practitioner will assist the individual in applying to land what they learn in the water, helping with movements of daily living and associated coping mechanisms. He or she will also work with the patient to achieve measurable goals.

What Conditions Are Treated with Hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy is used to treat a variety of medical conditions and diseases such as strokes, Parkinson's disease, obesity and muscular dystrophy. Cleveland Clinic Children’s, the pediatric division of the Cleveland Clinic relays, “Many children with musculoskeletal and neurological conditions benefit from aquatic therapy, as do children recovering from major surgeries or traumatic injuries.” Adaptive aquatic therapy has been used to treat Down syndrome, spina bifida, orthopedic disorders, and cerebral palsy. It may also be used to ease arthritic symptoms. Individuals who have a negative response to touch, such as those with disorders on the autism spectrum, have been able to tune out things in their surroundings—that would otherwise cause them stress or anxiety—and enjoy being in the pool. Some sources suggest this is due to the comforting pressure water places on the body when submersed and it may be that patients respond immediately to the comfort and safety of the water because it echoes the environment of the womb.

What About Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)?

Sandy Oeverman, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, at ResCare Premier, states, “Individuals with traumatic brain injury (TBI) or other special populations may be unable to exercise on land, but often can do so comfortably in the water. The buoyancy of water causes the individual to feel an upward thrust when submerged. This force acts in the opposite direction of gravity. Buoyancy allows for a variety of exercises to be performed in the pool with minimal equipment.” Research indicates that patients with TBI who engage in some form of water therapy, build strength and regain range of motion quicker than those who do not.

What Are The Benefits of Hydrotherapy?

Water therapy has many benefits. Among others, it encourages range of movement and resistance training, reduces muscle tension and joint pain, helps protect against injury, improves cardiovascular conditioning, and reduces stress and tension. The gentle treatments and exercise programs provide relief of pain by reducing joint pressure and strengthening and conditioning muscles to maintain joint flexibility. In addition to assisting in healing and exercise performance, water therapy can improve posture, balance, coordination, flexibility, and range of motion, and reduce pain. Oeverman explains, “The natural resistance in the aquatic environment may be beneficial for individuals with neurological impairments because the water will dampen involuntary spastic movements and tremors. A warmer water pool (around 93 degrees) will be most helpful to dampen involuntary movement.” Moreover, the reduction of stress and anxiety, increased concentration, and an enhanced feeling of well-being have all been linked to hydrotherapy.

Whatever you want to call it, Hydrotherapy has shown much success in the treatment of numerous conditions. At a very basic level, the pool-type atmosphere evokes a visceral feeling of enjoyment—It’s FUN! It is less clinical and more relaxing, allowing the healthful benefits to flourish under the care of a Certified Aqua Therapist.