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Using Aquatic Therapy to Ease Chronic Pain

Three in ten American’s suffer from chronic pain (1). With the recent shift in health care trending away from pain medications to manage chronic pain, millions of people are wondering how to manage their pain without the use of opioids. As a physical therapist, I am seeing more and more patients look toward physical activity to help manage their chronic pain.

What Is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting longer than six months (1). Another key component of chronic pain is pain that persists after the injured tissue has healed. Meaning, your body continues to tell your brain something is wrong, even when there is no longer a reason for the pain. This is called the pain cycle. An injury occurs which affects your ability to move and your emotional status. Less movement and increased emotional stress will lead to the fear of movement, decreased participation in hobbies and activities, leading to continued worsening physical and emotional state; creating a vicious cycle (2).

This makes treating chronic pain for health care professionals tricky. Prior to recent research, the treatment was medications to mask the pain. We are learning now, that in order to abolish chronic pain, we have to break up the pain cycle. One of the best ways to break that cycle is to move! The key is finding the exercise routine that can get you moving without increasing any of the pain or over stressing your body. So how can you exercise if every time you move, it hurts? The answer is simple, aquatic therapy.

Benefits of Aquatic Therapy

Aquatic therapy is a common treatment for people of all ages, fitness levels, and injuries. I commonly use aquatic therapy for patients suffering from chronic pain, including chronic low back pain, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, as well as post-surgery patients. There are three main principles of the water which help ease pain: buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, and temperature.


Buoyancy allows us to eliminate the effects of our weight on our joints. By being in the water, it decreases our body weight. The decrease in weight then decreases the pressure on all of our joints. Less pressure on the joint = less pain. This is especially helpful for a patient with disc degeneration in their spine or painful hips and knees who would benefit from decompression of their injured tissue.

Hydrostatic Pressure

Hydrostatic pressure is the pressure the water exerts on your body (3). This pressure provides stability to our joints, aids to reduce swelling, and adds resistance without adding weight. The resistance of the water will improve the strength of your muscles, heart, and lungs.

Thermal Stability

Lastly, many aquatic therapy sessions are held in a heated pool (92-94 degrees.) The warmer water is designed to improve blood flow, reduce muscle spasm, and provide a good environment for tissue healing without overheating (3).

While the effects of buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, and temperature do not last once we are out of the pool, the increase in endurance, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and strength will. One study found that patients who completed just four weeks of aquatic therapy five times per week had significant improvements in their quality of life, spinal motion, and reduced their overall level of disability (4).

Suffering from chronic pain can make it hard to even walk or get out of bed, let alone exercise. If pain is limiting your mobility and hindering your quality of life, I highly recommend testing out the water. You might find that the more your move in the water, the easier it is to move throughout your day!

If chronic pain is hindering your daily life, click the link below to schedule your free discover visit with a physical therapist at Buffalo Rehab Group.

1. Johannes, Catherine, Kim Le, Xiaolei Zhou, Joseph Johnston, and Robert Dworkin. “The Prevalence of Chronic Pain in United States Adults: Results of an Internet-Based Survey.”The Journal Of Pain 11.11 (2010): 1230-239. Web.
2. Syed, Yousuf. Overcoming the Fear to Move. 11 Dec. 2013.
3. 1. Becker, Bruce. Aquatic Therapy: Scientific Foundations and Clinical Rehabilitation Applications. American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2009; 1: 859-872.
4. Dundar, Umit, Ozlem Solak, Ilknur Yigit, Deniz Evcik, and Vural Kavuncu. “Clinical Effectiveness of Aquatic Exercise to Treat Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Spine 34.14 (2009): 1436-440. Web.



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