Pool Therapy for Pain

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

Aquatic exercise therapy for pain can be helpful for a number of conditions. The water is a wonderful way to exercise safely because of the reduced effects of weight and gravity.

Those with sore knees may have a really hard time walking on land, but walking in water is different. Those with sore backs may not even be able to tolerate standing, but being in a pool is different. Many types of painful conditions from arthritis to post-surgical pain are better tolerated without the constant gravitational load. Now is a great time to feel the benefits of buoyancy.

Some communities have public pools especially designated for the disabled. Some physical therapy offices have built-in pools. In the summertime, the access is virtually unlimited. Time to dive into some ways to utilize a pool for therapy. Time to dive into pool therapy (hydrotherapy).

Start by picking up some flotation devices, like the noodle and a kickboard. With these tools, the possibilities for activity are virtually endless. One way to utilize a noodle is as a device to help traction the low back.

With the noodle wrapped around your upper torso, the legs can dangle in the water beneath you and gentle stretch the spine. This form of decompression on the spinal discs can feel oh-so-good. While the legs are suspended and dangling underneath you, you can also try the bicycle pedaling motion. Start slowly and feel the gentle resistance that the water provides. This pool therapy technique can be the first step towards getting your body ready to use a stationary bicycle on land.

Another floatation device that can provide some therapy assistance is the kickboard. Facing belly-down or belly-up, some gentle flutter kicking might provide a tolerable form of aerobic exercise. Most importantly (with any pool therapy) is to find what is most comfortable for your body.

If floating is not working for you, try some walking. The water provides the buoyancy to reduce weight in addition to providing light resistance. Walking forward, walking backward, or side-stepping are all worth a try. Some may find one direction more comfortable than another.

As you become more advanced, skipping, running, hopping and jumping are all much easier to do in the water versus being on land. Pools are a great way to get the body ready for more activity on land, safely and comfortably.

If you are unable to tolerate walking in the pool, you may need to improve your ability to stand on one leg. That's right; standing on one leg is the basic building block for walking. While walking, you are either on one leg or the other.

Start near the edge of the pool (in the pool) where you can grab onto the edge and concentrate on keeping the pelvic brim level as you stand on one leg. Advance by letting go of the hand support and/or closing your eyes. As your ability to stand on one leg improves, so too will your ability to walk and climb stairs. Again, your abilities in the pool will translate into more abilities on land.

Pool therapy is designed to help transition the body from a water-based, reduced-weight environment where activities are more comfortable to a land-based, full-weight environment where activities are more challenging. Whether you have back pain, hip pain, knee pain, arm pain, or shoulder pain, most painful conditions benefit from pool therapy.

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.