Last week I did my first hydrotherapy session. I have been on the public waiting list for several months…maybe even years. It’s a very popular service, and there are not many warm water pools in my area.
I have to admit, I wasn’t keen. I don’t really enjoy swimming, or getting into the water. When I go to the pool, it’s to play with my kids. My daughter is a water baby, so I basically go to the pool for her.
But hydrotherapy is an excellent form of exercise for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
What is hydrotherapy?
Hydrotherapy is essentially doing exercises in a deep, warm water pool. A gym program done in the water, if you will. An exercise physiologist designs a program of exercises to strengthen your muscles, improve mobility, reduce swelling, increase range of motion and improve your circulation.
Many people with chronic pain conditions would benefit from exercise, but find it’s too painful to work out in a gym. The water, however, supports your body weight and takes pressure off your joints, and also provides resistance to work against.
The pool I attended is kept at 34 degrees. The warmth is soothing and it almost feels like a warm bath. It was far more pleasant than I was expecting. It felt wonderful on my inflamed and painful joints. Just the feeling of weightlessness alone, for a little while, was worth the trip.
The pool has varying levels, so that you can work in different depths of water. On entering the pool the water was about waist height, and the other end of the pool was so deep I couldn’t touch the bottom.
Because the water supports your body, I could do exercises in the pool, even though I had several flaring joints. The water helps with stability and balance, and the exercises can be made harder, and more targeted by using paddles, floats and dumbbells.
Each person’s program is specific to them, and a wide variety of conditions can be improved with hydrotherapy, including inflammatory arthritis, fibromyalgia, post surgery rehabilitation and neurological rehabilitation.
I began my session by just heading down to the deep end of the pool, and hanging off the side rail. Completely weightless in the water. It was absolute bliss! All pressure taken off all my joints. I would have been happy to spend the whole half hour session just hanging there. I could almost feel my spine stretching out, my muscles relaxing and my joints loosening.
But we were here to exercise, so I actually had to do stuff.
I walked up and down the pool a few times. Walking at just below shoulder depth against the resistance of the water was harder than I expected, but not painful. I had to walk forwards for two laps. Then rest. Then walk backwards. Rest. Then sideways.
Next I did some arm rotations, as we are focussing on my shoulder. Then I headed to more shallow water and did some squats. They had a chair in the pool, and another exercise was to simply sit down and stand back up again. It sounds so easy, but I could feel my muscles working, even though I am quite strong (for someone with RA). And it was so much more gentle.
I force myself to do exercises in the gym, because I firmly believe in ‘use it or lose it’. And it’s a lot harder to get it back once you’ve ‘lost it’, so I work hard to maintain the function I have.
But it is much less painful to do this work in the pool.
I did a few more exercises, bicep curls with floating barbells, forward shoulder presses, I can’t remember what else. The session went very quickly.
The hardest part was getting out, and feeling gravity attack my body again!
I didn’t experience any soreness either later that day, or even the next day. I am used to exercise however, and relatively fit (for someone with RA). In fact the day after my hydrotherapy session was one of those amazing, and very rare, low pain days. Co-incidence? Probably. But it sure was a bonus.
If you want to start exercising, I highly recommend hydrotherapy. It is expensive if you are doing it privately, but I believe the benefits would be well worth it. Exercising means stronger muscles and tendons, a stronger heart and a more functional body for longer. And exercising in the pool reduces the pain to very low levels.
Hydrotherapy means that almost anyone can exercise, I just wish it were more widely available. If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend giving it a try. Even if you’re like me, and think you hate the water.