Is Water Therapy Effective In The Treatment Of Osteoarthritis-related Pain And Stiffness?

Water therapy, also known as pool therapy, aqua therapy, or hydrotherapy, can be effective in reducing the symptoms of OA. In particular, it can be a soothing way to stretch your muscles and reduce the pain from the impact of exercise done on land.

A heated pool is a great environment for exercise. It major advantage over land-based exercise is the heat and buoyancy provided by the water.

The heat of a warmed pool relaxes tired muscles and reduces aches and pains, which in turn allows for longer and less painful exercise sessions. The ideal temperature for water exercises is 83 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water is cooler, it does not relax the muscles as well. If the water temperature is higher, you can easily overheat while exercising.

Buoyancy is the tendency for a body to float in a liquid. It counteracts the press of gravity. For example, if you stand up to your neck in water, your feet support only 10% of your body weight; the water supports the rest. Someone standing up to his waist in water supports only 50% of his body weight. Reduced weight bearing reduces the stress across the joints, which in turn reduces the pain associated with OA and allows for longer and more vigorous exercise. This type of exercise is particularly helpful to patients with OA in the spine, hips, and knees, for whom almost any other exercise is too painful to tolerate.

Pools are not just for swimming, of course. Numerous forms of exercises can be practiced in the pool. Unlike similar exercises performed on land, exercises in the pool take advantage of both the buoyancy and the gentle resistance of the water against arms and legs. Types of exercises practiced in pools include the following:

  • Water aerobics—including calisthenics, running in place, water walking, or using cross-country skiing movements in a shallow pool.
  • Stretching—including stretching the lower back, hamstrings, and calf muscles; touching the toes; and slowly raising the knees to the chest.
  • Strengthening—including muscle-building exercises, the use of foam barbells or hand paddles to complete bicep curls, and lateral side raises that work against water resistance.
  • Ai chi—a form of tai chi that was developed specifically for exercise in pools. Its slow, gentle, and rhythmic movements develop strength, balance, and joint flexibility.

As with any exercise program, you should start by visiting your doctor and making sure that you can tolerate the exercise without undue risk before you begin any type of water therapy.