By Kelly Wright – Fraser
The benefits of aquatic therapy such as the effects of buoyancy to decrease weight bearing a joint impact, hydrostatic pressure to decrease swelling and improve circulation, and the relaxation benefits and tissue extensibility resulting from the typically warm water in aquatic therapy pools are most often associated for patients with arthritis or chronic pain. When we think of aquatic therapy for the athletic population, we usually think of it during times of acute injury when weight bearing may be restricted or pain may be a significant barrier to land exercises. However, aquatic therapy can also be just as beneficial during the later stages of injury recovery for an athlete with a significant impact on injury prevention and their return to sports. With school sports well underway, here are a couple of ways aquatic therapy can benefit athletes at all stages of their recovery.
Lower friction in the water provides ease of movement allowing for fuller and easier spontaneous active range of motion during exercises which allows athletic patients to maximize their recovery with both concentric (shortening muscles against a load, like lifting a weight) and eccentric (lengthening a muscle against a load such as the downward motion during a squat) muscle contractions. Eccentric strengthening exercises performed at maximal muscle length can be a key component both in recover and re-injury prevention for muscle strains.
Buoyancy can both help with pain during weight bearing and also provide a safe environment for an athlete to reintroduce higher impact and closed kinetic chain exercises such as squats, lunges, bridges, and plyometrics. The viscosity of the water also helps athletes to slow down their movements, and the increase in processing time can allow for better positioning and righting of the body. So, for example, when a patient is recovering from an ACL tear, they can work on exercises like squat jumps and walking lunges with less impact to the knee joint and with better ability to adjust their foot placement and joint alignment to prevent stress to ligaments and other connective tissue structures.
By training the muscles to work appropriately in the water, a lower risk environment, we see better outcomes with return to land-based activities. This quickly gets our patients back to doing what they love with less chances of reinjuring themselves, allowing them to get the most out of their season.