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Hydrotherapy Helps Survivors Regain Strength and Mobility

Stroke can happen at any age, and approximately three-quarters of a million Americans experience the condition each year. That translates to about one stroke every 40-45 seconds, a sobering statistic.  There is some good news, however, given that the incidence of cardiovascular deaths has slowly begun to decrease on a national level.  In addition, those who have suffered stroke now have technologically-advanced methods at their disposal to help them regain as much strength and mobility as possible.  One of those innovative techniques is through hydrotherapy in a pool equipped with underwater treadmill and resistance jets.

About Hydrotherapy and Therapy Pools

Hydrotherapy is not a new way of helping individuals heal.  According to historians, it has been used for millennia by people around the globe.  From Asia to Europe to the Americas, it has held a place in medicine.  Today, thanks to water’s power to help the human body heal itself, aquatic exercise and therapy have gained enormous popularity among many populations, including professional athletes, world-class hospitals and cutting-edge senior living communities, as well as those who have experienced stroke.

For the stroke survivors we see at our facility, exercise in the water has the power to change their lives.  Often, our clients have been discharged from the hospital or land-based therapy because they have ceased to make gains.  Undaunted and determined, they turn to us to develop innovative exercise programs in our underwater treadmill therapy pool.  The results normally lead them to accomplish goals they could not otherwise achieve. 

Why Water Works

It sometimes surprises people that walking or running underwater on a treadmill (with or without resistance jets) can have profound effects.  Yet what they likely have not been told is that water has been the key for many stroke survivors to lead the highest quality post-stroke lives.

Water boasts unique properties that enable it to be used for both therapy and fitness, especially for persons who cannot comfortably rehabilitate or workout on land, as is often the case with stroke patients whose equilibrium has been compromised.  In water, the fear of falling evaporates. 

Water’s buoyancy immediately renders anyone submerged to feel lighter than he or she would on land.  Depending upon the level of submersion, up to 80-90 percent of a client’s body weight could be counteracted.  Thus, a 200-pound man would move as if he only weighed 20-40 pounds.  As a result, his movements would take less effort than if he were doing the same movements in a land-based environment. 

At the same time, the water provides resistive forces, which translates to an increase in strength despite a lowered perception of physical exertion. The ability to move with less pain and effort allows clients to sustain endurance training and calorie burning exercise, something that often cannot be achieved for long periods of time on land. Combined properties of water thus increase range of motion and flexibility, strength and endurance. 

Another advantage of water is that it is comforting.  Generally, all physical therapy and exercise is performed in warm pools.  The stable, soothing temperature relaxes muscles and helps lessen aches and pains. Hydrostatic pressure has a positive effect on the lymph and cardiovascular systems.  It also helps to decrease edema. When individuals leave a warm therapy pool, they are left feeling refreshed, not exhausted, and many in my care have reported that they can walk easier on land because of the benefits they have enjoyed thanks to the water.

This actually dovetails nicely with a paper circulated by the AHA which points out that “data...have documented the beneficial impact of regular physical activity on multiple cardiovascular disease risk factors and provided evidence that such benefits are likely to translate into a reduced risk for mortality from stroke and cardiac events.”

A Survivor's Story

They say that “seeing is believing”, and for my colleagues and me, that adage holds true.

In September 2012, one of our stroke clients participated in the first Underwater Marathon in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  This woman excitedly walked 20 minutes underwater on a treadmill.  To give a little perspective, three years before, her family had been told she wouldn’t survive her stroke.  But with a combination of land and water therapy (plus a generous amount of support from loving friends and family), she is enjoying her grandchildren, taking up adaptive yoga, and can say she participated in an underwater marathon.

For her, hydrotherapy has provided a renewed sense of strength and life.  For our team, being able to give her and other stroke survivors aquatic exercise in a pool with underwater treadmill and resistance jets is truly exhilarating.  There is no denying that stroke victims have uphill battles.  Fortunately, they have advanced hydrotherapy as a weapon they can use to beat the odds and make incredible strides.

By: Christine Shidla, HFS, Director of Wellness, Summit Place Senior Campus

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"Water boasts unique properties that enable it to be used for both therapy and fitness, especially for persons who cannot comfortably rehabilitate or workout on land."

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