Aquatic Therapy Overview
Aquatic therapy, also known as hydrotherapy or aquatherapy, is a type of physical therapy conducted in pools. By working in water, children with cerebral palsy can use their muscles in ways that they couldn’t on land.
Aquatic therapy is typically held in a large, group-style setting with others who have physical conditions. Therapy sessions may be held at hospitals, rehab centers or places like a local YMCA.
Typical aquatic therapy sessions include:
- Trained therapists and assistants who help children exercise
- Routines that focus on your child’s specific issues
- Heated pools for comfort and body stimulation
- Water-focused adaptive and exercise equipment
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to know how to swim to participate in aquatic therapy. To learn more about aquatic therapy and to find a session near you, consult with your child’s doctor or primary physical therapist.
Why Choose Aquatic Therapy?
There are many potential benefits of aquatic therapy. Working in water has been scientifically linked to mental and physical benefits, according to research reports analyzed by Time magazine. In addition to becoming physically stronger, children can become more confident in themselves as they progress and make friends with others in the sessions.
Notable benefits of aquatic therapy include:
- Temperature: Typically, most therapy pools are heated to around 90 degrees fahrenheit. This not only makes the therapy experience comfortable, but also helps stimulate blood flow and relax muscles that are stiff, tense or spastic.
- Water Pressure: Water exerts hydrostatic pressure on your body when you are in the water. This pressure has many healing properties. It stimulates blood and oxygen flow, reduces joint pain and creates a sense of calmness. It also strengthens muscles because they have to work a bit harder to move.
- Freedom: Because children with cerebral palsy may need adaptive equipment to move on land, a pool can help them feel more free and mobile. Children can shed their wheelchairs or crutches and rely on the water and instructors to provide balance. This sense of freedom can increase their self-confidence.
- Fun: Kids with cerebral palsy can enjoy the pool just as much as those without it. For those who like swimming, an aquatic therapy session can feel less like a doctor’s visit and more like a trip to the pool. Aquatic therapy can also reduce issues such as anxiety and depression.
Is Aquatic Therapy for Everyone?
Though aquatic therapy has many unique benefits, it may not be suited for everyone. Children with severe mental or physical issues may be afraid of swimming. Those with touch sensitivities may also find being in water uncomfortable. These issues make the goals of aquatic therapy hard to achieve.
If your child struggles or finds discomfort in aquatic therapy, a one-on-one session with an aquatic therapist may help. There are also many other forms of therapy you can explore if aquatic therapy does not suit your child.
Where is Aquatic Therapy Performed?
Aquatic therapy sessions can be conducted in hospitals, rehabilitation centers and privately operated pools. In each of these settings, specialized therapists work alongside patients for the duration of the session. Trained volunteers or aids may work with patients under the guidance of a therapist.
For children who need therapy after a cerebral palsy diagnosis, a local aquatic therapy program may be very helpful. These therapy sessions can take place at local swimming centers or health clubs like the YMCA. Children who need more intensive therapy can benefit from programs at hospitals or rehab centers.
Types of Aquatic Therapy Sessions
There are a few different types of therapy sessions your child can attend. Depending on your child’s needs, they may need to try each type before finding the one they are most comfortable with.
- Group Therapy: Group therapy sessions are the most common form of aquatic therapy. By working with other people going through similar issues, your child can build a sense of community and even make new friends.
- One-on-One Sessions: If your child is struggling to perform certain exercises or is not showing noticeable improvement, you may be able to schedule a one-on-one session with a therapist or volunteer. This can help your child get additional therapy to work on challenges specific to them.
- Alone Time: Depending on the facility, there may be open hours where children can work on water-based exercises at their own leisure. Parents can also work alongside their children if they cannot perform some of the exercises on their own.
Aquatic Therapy Adaptive Equipment
Depending on the facility, pools that host aquatic therapy sessions may have water-based exercise equipment. This equipment can help people with cerebral palsy manage their symptoms or simply help them into the water.
Adaptive equipment for aquatic therapy includes:
- Water Wheelchairs and Ramps: Ramps and stairs can help people with mobility issues safely get in and out of the pool. There are also waterproof wheelchairs that are specially designed for use in water.
- Lifts: For paraplegic or quadriplegic swimmers, gentle crane-based lifts can be used to guide them into the water. From there, therapists and assistants can help the person exercise.
- Balancing Bars: Underwater balancing bars help people with cerebral palsy strengthen their muscles without the potential drawbacks of using them on land. They are much less likely to hurt themselves if they lose their balance.
- Bicycles: Stationary water bikes help simulate the effects of a bicycle without the high impact that normal cycling brings.
- Treadmills: Much like underwater bicycles, these treadmills allow people to get exercise without impacting the joints as much. Underwater treadmills offer acceleration features that help people get the best of both worlds.
Aquatic Therapy Costs
While aquatic therapy can be very helpful to someone with cerebral palsy, a family may not be able to pay for sessions alone. In addition, it may not be covered under your insurance. It is important to talk to your doctor and insurance company to see if aquatic therapy will work best for your child.
If you believe that aquatic therapy can help your child—but you cannot afford it—you may also want to explore legal action if your child’s birth injury was the result of medical malpractice. A cerebral palsy lawsuit may help get you the money you need to pay for your child’s medical expenses, including therapies.