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  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • January 2018
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Warm water therapy benefits may surprise you

In January of 2014, Karl noticed numbness in his left foot. Soon, the numbness increased and progressed up his leg. After months of testing, and while paralysis was setting in, a MRI of his upper spine revealed a tumor in his spinal column. In September, Karl underwent a seven-hour surgery to have it removed. His prognosis of being able to walk again was mixed at best.

With walking on his own the ultimate goal, Karl started with traditional physical therapy, but the progress he was hoping for wasn’t realized. He then worked with a physical trainer at the YMCA where he focused on a program aimed at regaining muscle strength and included the use of their standard pool as well as land-based exercises. After two years, Karl had reached a plateau with his progress, so when his trainer made the decision to change careers, he decided it was a good time to give warm water aquatic therapy a try.

When Karl first came to the pool he had little feeling in his lower body. We needed to start with the basics, which included building core strength and muscle re-education. Warm water therapy is great for this because it relaxes your muscles enough to be able to be stretched, and working in water slows your movement enough to give extra time for the brain to communicate with the muscles. Rebuilding muscle memory is the essential building block for muscle strengthening and the overall recovery process.

After a year of working in warm water, Karl has made solid progress. His muscle control has improved, he can walk up the pool ramp using handrails to steady his balance and his confidence has soared. He is also able to complete some land-based exercises that he wasn’t able to do before.

In addition to specialized cases like Karl’s, warm water aquatic therapy can be helpful for a host of other medical issues including joint and chronic pain, muscle weakness, sports injuries, pre- and post-surgical recovery, orthopedic disorders and neurological diagnoses.

The key with warm water is that it provides muscle relaxation. Once the muscles are relaxed, people often find they are able to do more in the water with less pain. Decreased muscle tension also increases the ability to stretch muscles, which means you are able to try and be successful with new exercises and in turn can increase your heart rate and overall cardiovascular health.

Working in the water also helps you “buy back” gravity. I start many of my clients in the deep end of the pool, where they are completely buoyant. As they progress, we work toward the shallow end, reintroducing a bit of gravity each time as they build adequate strength. Doing this allows clients to work at their own pace and progress when they are ready and able to.

Another advantage of warm water therapy is three dimensional access to the client. Instead of working only one area at a time as you lie on a table, in the pool, I can move more freely around a client, working with multiple areas at the same time.

If you are considering physical therapy, or are looking for alternate options to further your progress, talk to your doctor or therapist about warm water aquatic therapy. Like Karl, it might be your game changer, too. 


Bonnie Murry

Bonnie Murray is a Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, certified in Adaptive Aquatics Interventions with multi-disabilities. She’s been at the Aquatic Center at CP since 2012 and works with patrons with neuromuscular disorders, post-trauma rehabilitation needs, pain management and personal fitness goals.

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