Splash around: Why water therapy can help with pain, mood and mobility

Whether you call it water therapy, hydrotherapy or aquatic therapy, moving around in a pool can be a really important—not to mention fun and social—tool to treat arthritis. No matter how you move in the water, it’s going to be a resistive kind of exercise, says Alison Bonnyman, an aquatic physiotherapist in Toronto, meaning that it’s going to gently strengthen your muscles. However, the buoyancy of the water also takes the weight off painful joints: win-win! The water is a good place to work on improving your balance too. As Bonnyman points out, “If you fall when you’re in the water, you’re only going to get your hair wet.”

Research also suggests that other benefits of hydrotherapy include pain relief, reduced joint tenderness and better quality of life, in particular for people with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and hip and knee osteoarthritis. Here’s what to keep in mind if you’re considering hydrotherapy.

There are different approaches

You might do a one-on-one or group session with a physiotherapist, or take part in a water fitness class with a variety of exercises taught by a fitness instructor. Or, you can get some instruction and then work on your own if you prefer. You’re not actually swimming—usually you’re standing upright, with water about waist, chest or shoulder height. (Swimming can, however, have similar benefits.) Foam noodles, boards or water wings are also sometimes used, to help with floatation or increase resistance. Research shows that walking, jogging or running in water offers the same benefits of those activities on land, just without the impact on joints.

Consider temperature

Water therapy typically takes place in a warmer pool. “Generally, 90 to 92°F (32 to 34°C) is a neutral comfortable temperature,” explains Bonnyman. “You’re not losing body heat or getting overheated.” If you prefer a cooler pool, however, that’s ok too, as long as you’re able to stick it out long enough to get the benefits of exercise. How about a cold plunge pool? “It won’t affect your joints if you go in and out of a plunge pool for short periods,” she says.

Rethink the swimsuit

While men can usually handle swim trunks without too much trouble, women’s swimsuits can be harder to peel on and off. Look for a tank style, as opposed to a racerback, or shop for “adaptive swimwear” which may have an easy-to-use zipper down the front. Talk to your occupational therapist about using a pick-up tool or other tools to manage dressing and undressing too. “You can also wear a nylon t-shirt and shorts in the pool instead of a swimsuit,” says Bonnyman (assuming pool regulations permit it).

Do some steps

You’ve heard that you need to “use it or lose it” —in other words, you need to keep those joints moving to maintain mobility. Hydrotherapy is a great way to gently continue using your joints and keep your range of motion with less or no pain. “If your hips or knees are sore when you’re walking or doing stairs, practice walking and stairs in the pool,” she says. And if you use a walker or cane on land, just bring it with you onto the pool deck to feel more stable. Public pools should be well-equipped with proper railings and hand holds as well.

Check with your health care provider   

Remember that exercise in water can lower blood pressure and heart rate, so consult with your health care provider first.

Have fun

“There’s a special camaraderie that comes with being in the water with a group,” says Bonnyman. Plus, studies show you’re more likely to stick with an exercise program when you do it with friends.  Go ahead: mix water with your workout!