Water Therapy for Back Pain

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 58.9% of adults in this country suffer from chronic pain. They state that, of that group, 39% experience pain in their back. There are many therapeutic approaches to managing chronic low back pain. However, water therapy may be one of the most effective.

Seniors may use Health Report Live to get the information they need to manage their chronic pain. This article covers the advantages of using water therapy to relieve chronic pain.

Why Hot Water Therapy for Back Pain?

In therapeutic and physical therapy settings, water therapy or hydrotherapy helps mobilize joints, enhance range of motion, and build balance and stability. 

If a back issue prevents someone from engaging in a regular training regimen, a water exercise program may be a suitable option to consider throughout the recovery process. This program can assist in mitigating the unavoidable fitness loss that comes with being inactive.

What Is Hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy or water therapy works to treat transitory skin concerns like burns, septic ulcers, and chronic pain conditions such as osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. 

Water therapy employs hot or cold water, with water pressure and flow altering depending on the treatment. The goal is to alleviate both physical and emotional discomfort.

Some hydrotherapy activities are as easy as sitting in a warm bath, which is something that individuals may perform at home. However, other procedures need specialized venues or equipment, such as a whirlpool. 

The terms hydrotherapy and water exercise are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they are different.

What Is Water Exercise?

Aquatic or water exercise is a low-impact activity that takes the pressure off the bones, muscles, and joints. Water also provides natural resistance, which can help strengthen muscles.

Aquatic exercise has several health benefits, such as improved heart health, reduced stress, and improved muscular endurance and strength.

In addition, exercising in the water can be a great way to include physical activity for a sedentary person. Water exercise may also benefit older adults by staying active.

Try a Water Exercise Routine

If you are considering performing water exercises, you can do the following routines:

  • Water arm lifts: This exercise involves standing in the water at shoulder depth and using foam dumbbells for additional resistance.

Hold the dumbbells at your side. Lift your forearms to water height and lower them to the starting position. Do one to three sets of 10-15 reps each.

  • Leg kicks: This routine works on the core and leg muscles. To perform, hold on to the pool ledge and do various kicking exercises, such as flutter kicks, scissor kicks, or breaststroke kicks. Perform each kick for one to three minutes.

Benefits of Water Therapy for the Back

For some with chronic low back pain and neck pain, aquatic therapy can offer pain relief, according to Helen Hayes Hospital. There are many benefits, such as:

  • Reduced load-bearing capacity: Because of the buoyancy of water, aqua therapy helps reduce the tension exerted on the spine.

For a disc problem that makes movement unpleasant weeks after surgery, therapy in water can relieve some of gravity’s load on the spine, allowing the patient to focus on the therapeutic exercises.

  • Increased mobility: Because of the buoyancy of the water, a person can twist and turn more freely, allowing them to perform range-of-motion exercises that they would not be able to accomplish on land.
  • Natural resistance: There will be no resistance when executing trunk twists on land. Thus, the spinal muscles will not be overworked and strengthened.

However, because water is more resistive than air, basic land exercises workouts performed in the water will be more effective.

  • Reduced discomfort: Many people who suffer from back problems report that a water workout is less unpleasant than a traditional land workout.

This situation makes sense since water increases blood circulation to aching muscles and joints. The sensation of the water is also soothing, taking their minds off the pain.

  • Enhanced security: Spinal surgery and other severe spinal diseases can impair balance. A painful nerve or a momentary loss of balance on land caused by a spinal disease can result in fractures or other injuries.

When waist-deep in water, though, balance is not a problem. Water treatment can lower the chance of falling by strengthening the muscles in the feet and improving balance on land.

Water-based activities can also promote mental health in certain persons. Aquatic exercise treatment, for example, may help patients with fibromyalgia reduce anxiety and despair.

Furthermore, many people may find that swimming boosts their mood and helps them release stress via exercise.

Tips for Getting Started in Water Therapy

For most people, getting started means finding the right program. However, it should begin with visiting the doctor’s office or a physical therapist. 

Therapy in the water will not be the right option for every type of lower back pain. Thus, getting a proper diagnosis is critical to developing an effective and targeted therapy plan which may or may not involve water. It could also be the path to a better quality of life for those with chronic pain, such as sciatica.

Once a doctor approves of this treatment approach, the next step is finding a program. For people comfortable in the water, a local health spa or gym may be all that is necessary. 

Then, the trained staff will walk them through the process. They may have therapeutic and aerobic water programs. Aerobic programs are good for cardiovascular health and can improve hydrostatic pressure.

For those less comfortable in the water, it may be worth taking a different approach involving a warm water hydro pool, whirlpool, or hot tub, instead of a big swimming pool. 

A health spa may offer both options. However, it is essential to ask if getting into a pool is the only choice. It may be worth joining a program that does offer both. Then, they can start in the whirlpool and transition to the more significant water option when ready.

Also, there may be specialized equipment that can improve the treatment. For example, water weights, pool noodles, and even floats all work well in a water therapy program if it is in a pool. Often, the gym or health spa will have these items on hand. At the very least, you will need a swimsuit.

However, comfort level is sometimes a concern. Wearing a swimsuit in public may make some people feel uncomfortable. 

Still, there may be a way to avoid interacting with others by scheduling an appointment at the spa or pool ahead of time. 

Those who have self-image issues may also consider alternatives to swimsuits. For example, they can ask if the facility allows for shorts and a t-shirt.

Top 5 Mistakes Seen With Hydrotherapy for Back Pain

Core Physiotherapy and Exercise Centres explains that there are some common mistakes that can keep people from returning to hydrotherapy if they have a terrible experience. They include:

  • The temperature of the water: The purpose of being in the water is to help with muscular relaxation and mobility. The body will stiffen up if the water is too cold.
  • Deep does not always mean better: The water depth required should be determined by the goals of the person doing the therapy.

Is it, for example, a resistance-based exercise or a control-based exercise concentrating on movement patterns? Is it just about removing weight from your spine for pain relief? Each of these instances may require a different ideal water depth for the best outcomes.

  • Just wanting to swim: Water therapy is not time in the pool. Instead, it is a treatment designed to target problem areas. For those just hoping to swim, it may be a bad choice.

Tailored programs are better able to target critical spinal muscles and reduce pain.

  • Pacing is off: Water frequently deceives people. It supports the body’s weight and makes motions simpler, alleviating part or all discomfort.

People with back problems often discover that they can handle more activity in the water than on land. For this reason, it is quite simple to overdo it. This risk can be reduced by pacing the workout in the water.

The prescribed hydrotherapy program will include the suggested repetitions and sets for each exercise and the necessary rest periods.

When there are fewer setbacks and flare-ups, it is always simpler to advance in your rehabilitation and recovery.

  • Proper timing: Along those same lines, a person must give their body time to heal after a session and not go back in the water or spend too much time in it.

Water therapy for low back pain can promote healing and wellness when done right. However, it may aggravate an injury when done wrong. 

Pool therapy is not the right choice for everyone. However, it may work well for those who need to avoid treadmills.

The properties of water are soothing and low-impact. Pool exercises are an excellent orthopedic approach to pain management. Those who are unsure should ask their doctors about water therapy exercises to warm up muscles, promote healing by improving blood flow, and relieve pain.

When Not to Exercise in the Water

Water temperatures above 90°F (32°C) may be too hot and unsafe for water exercises. Additionally, you should avoid exercising in the water if you experience the following:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Pain in the upper body or chest
  • Weakness or fainting
  • Nausea

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers is currently a Resident in the Internal Medicine program at UTMB. He studied at the University of Queensland School of Medicine as well as received his Master’s in Public Health with a focus in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Southern California. His background is in biology, computer science, public health, and internal medicine.

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