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Hydrotherapy – soothing away the aches and pains of arthritis

Cindy Thomann, P.T.

Hydrotherapy is the practice of using water to treat illness. Water is a great place to exercise when you are injured. Its buoyancy relieves pressure on stiff joints and muscles and provides gentle exercise. Warm water is even more therapeutic because it raises body temperature and increases circulation throughout the body.

One condition that can benefit greatly from hydrotherapy is arthritis. Arthritis occurs when one or more joints become inflamed causing pain and stiffness. The most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis results from worn out cartilage and rheumatoid arthritis is caused by a reaction of the immune system. Both can be very painful. Fortunately, hydrotherapy can help relieve the pain caused by both types. 

How does water help?

Exercise can put excess strain on your joints and muscles, especially when they already are stiff because of arthritis. Performing exercises in water allows joints and muscles to be worked gently and safely because it does not cause excess strain. Strength and flexibility are increased while pain and stiffness are decreased.

Resistance is a big factor in water exercise. Water has 12 times the resistance of air so muscles get a good workout in a gentle environment. In combination with the buoyancy and drag created by the water, the resistance makes simply walking around in a pool a beneficial exercise for those with arthritis. Other water exercises that can relieve the pain of arthritis are swimming, aerobics and various resistance exercises like lifting and pushing water weights or flotation devices.

Walking in water

There are specific techniques to maximize the benefits of walking in water:

• Use the right equipment – When walking in deep water, use a floatation belt to keep you upright and floating at shoulder height.

• Proper water depth – When exercising in shallow water, stand at least waist deep, but no more than chest deep in the water so that you can walk like you are walking on normal ground.

• Form matters – To properly exercise, stand up straight with your shoulders back and your chest lifted. Bend your arms slightly at your sides while slowly stepping forward making sure your whole foot touches the bottom of the pool.

• Avoid strain – Steps should land heel first, followed by the ball of the foot. Keep your stomach and back muscles active as well to avoid strain.

• Create intensity – The higher you lift your knees, the more intense the workout will be. Intensity can also be created by using intervals during exercise. Increasing speed for a short time, returning to your normal pace and then increasing speed again multiple times will help you get the most out of your workout by keeping your heart rate up.

Who can help?

There are physical therapists who are trained to work with arthritis patients in the water. They can determine which exercises will have the best effect and can suggest additional methods like using an underwater treadmill. Underwater treadmills are available at some facilities and simulate walking and running on land, but in a low-impact environment.

Flagstaff Medical Center’s Therapy Services offers aquatic exercise classes from 7 – 8 a.m., noon – 1 p.m., 4:30 – 5:30 p.m. and 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Each session consists of 45 minutes of instruction followed by 15 minutes of independent workout in the pool. The cost is $5 per class or $40 for 10 classes. Call 928 773-2125 to confirm times and availability or to learn more about aquatic classes.

Cindy Thomann, P.T., is a physical therapist in FMC’s Therapy Services.