Getting Started with Pool Therapy

Getting Started with Pool Therapy

Since the early 1930s, when many resorts promoted the therapeutic powers of their hot springs for polio, arthritis, and other rheumatic and immunologic ailments, pool therapy has been an accepted part of exercise and physical therapy programs. As the name implies, pool therapy is generally conducted with participants submerged in a swimming pool that is deep enough to reach their shoulders or neck. There are many places to find water therapy, such as:

  • Public pools, YMCA facilities, or physical therapy centers often have pools used for this type of therapy.
  • The Arthritis Foundation in association with the YMCA has developed a program called PACE, which stands for People with Arthritis Can Exercise. These programs are very safe and effective in improving strength and preserving joint movement.
  • Some rehabilitation centers associated with hospitals or clinics have their own pool therapy facilities, although sessions may be limited to patients of physicians or physical therapists working at the main facility.

Each facility's approach to water therapy instruction may differ a bit depending on the focus of the class, but participants should look for the following:

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  • A clean, well lit pool that is comfortably warm but not hot, usually between 90° and 94° F. Cooler pools may be safely used as well, but the comfort of the warmer water may be useful
  • A knowledgeable instructor who explains and demonstrates exercises
  • A set of exercises that works various joints and areas of the body, from the neck, through the back, and down to the feet
  • Use of flotation devices, such as belts, barbells, or boards, to provide added resistance or stability

Before signing up for a pool therapy class, many people find it helpful to observe a session or talk with the instructor about his/her objectives and approach, and determine if the set up of the class - schedules, number of people, types of exercises - will be appropriate. Many health insurers will cover some or all of the pool therapy if it is prescribed as treatment for osteoarthritis.

Pool therapy is a proven approach to both managing the pain of osteoarthritis and maintaining strength, flexibility, and mobility in joints. It has a number of added health benefits, such as improving heart and lung function, and also often decreases blood pressure. It may be safely used in almost all individuals, even those with heart disease and hypertension, and even patients with advanced arthritis can benefit.

Overall water therapy is an extremely safe and gentle exercise activity and can be a powerful pain management option for those suffering from osteoarthritis pain. Water therapy can be an important part of any therapy program helping osteoarthritis patients maintain their ability to function and remain independent.

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Written by Andrew J. Cole, MD and Bruce E. Becker, MD, MS