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Dive In! -- Aquatic Therapy for People With Disabilities

WebMD Health News

July 19, 2000 -- Water. Not only is it essential for life, it provides far-reaching benefits to the body and mind. Just ask Penny Linder, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 26 years ago and has been using aquatics, or water exercise, to help relieve chronic pain caused by the neurological disease.

Although Linder may not be able to jump freely into the pool like she did as a child, she values aquatics for what it can provide her both physically and mentally -- a chance to feel healthy despite a disability that has gradually curbed her energy.

"I don?t feel disabled in the water," she said. "I feel stronger and more healthy in the pool because I can do things there that I couldn?t dream of dong on land."

Because water eliminates the effects of gravity on the body, pain and stress on muscles and joints are greatly reduced. As result, Linder and others like her, can stretch and strengthen weakened arms and legs within their full range of motion. While standing in a pool, they can also use the weight of water to help correct problems in gait and balance with less effort than on land.

Aquatics are particularly recommended for people with MS because water is more efficient in drawing heat away from the body than is air. This helps keep the body from overheating, which often causes MS symptoms to worsen temporarily.

The soothing effects of the water can also benefit other people with disabilities, according to experts at Shepherd Center, an Atlanta-based hospital that specializes in treating people with MS and brain and spinal cord injuries.

Therapists at Shepherd often supplement a patient?s rehabilitation program with aquatic therapy because warm water has been shown to help increase flexibility, decrease pain, relieve muscle spasms, and improve circulation.

"With aquatics, individuals can improve their mobility in the water, then take what they've learned and practice it on land," said Margo Howell, aquatics specialist at Shepherd Center. "Plus, it's just fun and a nice change of pace from many other forms of exercise and therapy."

Getting Started

Whether taking a class or working independently, talk with your doctor about starting an exercise program. Shepherd Center aquatic therapists also recommend the following:

  • Look for a community pool that is easy to get in and out of. Many public pools have lifts or ramps with handrails for greater accessibility. If not, ask if a portable lift can be added.
  • Check the water temperature. For people with MS, cooler is better -- 78-82? F is ideal for exercise, but warmer temps of 85-86? F degrees are fine for stretching. For people with spinal cord injuries who may get chilled easily, warmer water -- 92-94? F -- is best.
  • Start slowly. Try exercising or stretching for 15-20 minute sessions, until your body gets used to it. Remember, it?s easy to over exert yourself in the water.
  • Never exercise to the point of pain.
  • Drink plenty of water after exercising.

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