Therapist: Aquatic therapy great option for low-impact recovery

Simply put, aquatic physical therapy is the practice of physical therapy in the water. Also known as hydrotherapy, it’s often an effective, evidence-based option to consider as an alternative for people who have trouble exercising due to pain, weakness, and weight-bearing and mobility limitations.

The pools used are designed specifically for physical therapy and are often smaller and have adaptations, like handrails and lifts, to enhance patient comfort and accessibility. An aquatic program is designed by a patient’s physical therapist as part of an individualized treatment plan to achieve specific goals.

Is Aquatic Therapy an Option for Me?

Aquatic therapy can be beneficial for a number of different patients and is not utilized for specific diagnoses, but instead is used to address particular problems a patient may have including:

  • Balance and coordination
  • Muscle strengthening/relaxation
  • Function/mobility
  • Increasing flexibility

One of the reasons aquatic therapy can be beneficial to patients is because the water absorbs most of the pressure and stress our body weight through. Buoyancy reduces impact and physical stress by up to 90%. Additionally, the water pressure helps reduce swelling and the warm temperature improves blood flow and circulation. Combined, these conditions improve the flow of oxygenated blood to the damaged muscles and tissues encouraging healing. 

Aquatic therapy is typically used for patients who:

  • Are not allowed full weight bearing but need to work on walking and movement exercises
  • Need to work on jumping or landing but are unable to tolerate high impact activities
  • Are recovering from surgery
  • Are experiencing acute low back pain and cannot tolerate standing and walking
  • Are athletes and need to break down sport specific drills in a more controlled environment

What to Expect

Physical therapists with specialty training in aquatic therapy design a program specifically to a patient’s physical abilities and work with the patient to achieve goals. If you’re physical therapist does not have aquatic therapy as an option, they can refer to a program and will collaborate with that program’s physical therapist on your treatment.

There is no requirement to know how to swim before participating in aquatic therapy. The therapists are trained to work with patients of all abilities, safety devices are provided, and the pools used are designed specifically for physical therapy and are often smaller and have adaptations, like handrails and lifts, to enhance patient comfort and accessibility.

Consider Your Options

Physical therapists offer aquatic therapy at many facilities across the region. If you believe you or a loved one could benefit from hydrotherapy, talk to your provider and physical therapist today. Your provider and therapist have the best understanding of your condition, can help determine if you could benefit from an aquatic therapy program, and refer you to a program in your community.


Eric Barlett is a physical therapist with UPMC Rehabilitation Services and sees patients at Wellsboro Physical Therapy & Aquatic Rehabilitation Center, 11893 Route 6, Wellsboro. For more information about UPMC Rehabilitation Services, visit UPMC.com/RehabNCPA.

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