Water Exercise for Rehabilitation

water rehab


Accidental injuries, age-related deterioration, and degenerative diseases prevent you from exercising normally, often resulting in loss of muscle mass, mobility, and self-esteem. Whether you’re recovering from injury or just trying to maintain function, the natural buoyancy and resistance of water primes the body for strength-building exercise while simultaneously relieving pain, reducing inflammation, and removing pressure from the joints. If you’re seeking a pain-free alternative to land-based rehabilitation, experience the many benefits of water.


Who is Aquatic Rehab For?

The Cleveland Clinic recommends aquatic therapy or rehabilitation for people with a range of physical conditions. Those suffering from orthopedic and rheumatologic disorders stand to benefit from the pool’s gravity-free workout environment as well as the omnidirectional resistance that challenges weak muscles with every movement. People with chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia, back spasms, cervical herniated discs, and cerebral palsy find relief in the water due to its hydrostatic pressure that increases blood flow and massages tense muscles and joints. Beyond that, athletes recovering from injury and surgery are often prescribed aquatic therapy to maintain endurance and muscle mass without stressing the body. Conversely, if you have seizures, open wounds, a chlorine allergy, or are incontinent, water therapy is not recommended for safety reasons.


Water vs. Land-Based Rehabilitation

Many people suffering from immobility or joint pain, or those who recently underwent surgery find that it is difficult to exercise on land. Even high-level athletes have trouble recovering on land after invasive knee, hip, and shoulder surgeries. Walking, stretching, and bearing weight can be intolerably painful, making water’s weightlessness a wonderfully inviting rehabilitation arena.

Compared to land-based therapy, water allows for those with poor strength or coordination to gain strength and mobility. A 2011 study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation compared the effectiveness of aquatic therapy to land therapy in Parkinson’s patients. Each test group exercised twice a week for 45 minutes in either a water setting or a land-based setting. Researchers found that the participants in the water group outperformed their counterparts in balance and postural stability, leading to a recommendation of aquatic rehabilitation over on-land therapy.

Aquatic rehab has even been proven to be a more effective therapy for patients recovering from spinal cord injury. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that the positive outcomes were “significantly higher” in the aquatic group than in the land group. Water participants experienced larger increases in pulmonary function, which researchers attributed to hydrostatic pressure applied to the diaphragm and intracostal muscles.

The Cleveland Clinic notes that aquatic rehabilitation also provides unique benefits for rehab patients like reduction in inflammation, decreased joint compression, and improved posture and balance. While some private PT practitioners have yet to implement water therapy strategies, the aquatic approach to rehabilitation is widely advocated by respected organizations such as the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute (ATRI), the Wounded Warrior Project, and universities nationwide.



Endorsed by Athletes, Soldiers

Lynda Huey, a renowned sprinter and author of “The Waterpower Workout,” has been a longtime advocate of water therapy after she found recovery from hip injuries using aquatic rehabilitation. Popularized in the 1980s, Huey’s program has guided numerous other sports legends such as Wilt Chamberlain, Florence Griffith Joyner, and Cybill Shepherd to recovery. Along with Robert Klapper, M.D., Huey also published “Heal Your Hips” – a 10-minute program designed to prevent the need for and/or heal from hip surgery. Patients following the program experienced improved gait and flexibility as well as increased range of motion and coordination.


Through programs like Operation Endurance and Sun Valley Adaptive Sports (both Wounded Warrior projects), swimming and aquatic therapy is utilized to help veterans overcome amputation, traumatic brain injury (TBI), paralysis, and disfigurement. Water therapy has also been found to improve the quality of life for returning soldiers with visual impairments and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Make a point of checking in with your doctor or PT before trying out an aquatic therapy or rehabilitation program. Once your doctor gives you the go-ahead, seek out an experienced aquatic rehabilitation professional who will help you to achieve the best results in the shortest amount of time.

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Lizzy Bullock

Staff Writer at AquaGear
Lizzy Bullock is a Red Cross certified swimming instructor (WSI) with a decade of experience helping children overcome fear and swim independently. Lizzy currently works as a swimming instructor and staff writer for AquaGear, a swim school and online swim shop.

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