July 5, 2008

Aquatic Therapy for Back Pain

Tyler here is getting ready to do his water aerobics.


Looks like he wasn’t exactly expecting company.


As you can probably guess, I’m often asked to comment on various forms of physical therapy and exercise programs. The following email is just such an example. (Edited and paraphrased for brevity.)

Dear Dean

What is Aquatic Therapy? Do you think there is any advantage to signing up for one of these programs?

Thanks in advance,

Hi Debbie,

Thanks for the email. I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can…

What is Aquatic Therapy?

Aquatic therapy programs (sometimes called pool therapy or water therapy) are physical therapy sessions performed in a heated pool rather than on dry land. Many of the same exercises are performed and the same benefits obtained, but there are numerous advantages to exercising in water including:

  • The warmth and buoyancy of the water helps certain individuals for whom regular exercise is difficult or impossible.
  • The added resistance of the water helps to condition and strengthen muscles and joints. To get the same results on land would require the use of resistance bands or wrist and ankle weights.
  • Finally, some people find the pool environment (sounds, warmth, camaraderie) helps them to relax.

Disadvantages of Pool Therapy

Despite the obvious advantages of pool therapy, it does come with some disadvantages:

  • You have to work around their schedule.
  • It takes much more time. You have to allow for traveling to and from the pool, changing and showering both before and after the session. A fifteen to twenty minute workout could take a couple hours out of your day.
  • Programs are not available everywhere. You may have to drive a long distance to get to the nearest facility offering water therapy.
  • Plus, there is the added expense if you don’t have insurance.
  • Finally, I prefer to exercise every day — and I do some exercises several times a day. Most water therapy programs are only two or three times per week.

Who Might Benefit from Aquatic Therapy?

Just like any exercise program, everyone would benefit from aquatic therapy, but it is primarily designed for people who have difficulty exercising on dry land. If you’re not able to perform regular exercise due to pain, decreased bone density, disability or other health condition a water-based program may be just what you need. Water therapy is especially beneficial for people with arthritis or osteoporosis.

Because of the specialized nature of the exercises, water-based therapy programs should only be performed under the guidance of a qualified physical therapist. I don’t think it is something you would want to try to do on your own.


So there you have it. Aquatic or water therapy offers many of the same benefits associated with a regular exercise program with some nice added features — if you don’t mind the inconvenience.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, your doctor or physical therapist may be able to recommend a program in your area.

Personally, I prefer exercising in the comfort and convenience of my own home. However, for some people, aquatic therapy is an excellent choice.

As always,

p.s. Another disadvantage of pool therapy…