More and more physicians, athletic trainers and coaches are turning to aquatic sports therapy to help athletes reach new heights. The rigors of intense training and competition takes a physical toll no matter how tough the athlete. Aquatic therapy exercises have proven to increase performance and speed up injury recovery.
The buoyant property of water makes it ideal for athletes to train even when injured. Underwater treadmills allow athletes to run against variable resistance jets to improve cardiovascular and muscle strength without joint strain. Deep-tissue massage jets are also used to decrease lactic acid build up in stressed muscles. This speeds recovery time and assists with pain management.
Ask Sarah Mercer what she thinks about aquatic sports therapy. The competitive triathlete was hit by a car on a training ride three weeks before an Ironman. She completed the race, but two compression fractures in her back forced her to stop training on land. Sarah was able to run on an underwater treadmill since the water allowed her to bear less weight on the injury. “In a very short amount of time we were able to increase the speed of the treadmill and increased the intensity of the jets to give me an intense workout without pounding,” Sarah said. After several months was able to run outside and eventually won her age group in the Wisconsin Ironman, qualifying her for the Hawaii Ironman triathlon. She continues to incorporate aquatic therapy exercises into her training routine, whether she is injured or healthy.
Dr. Curt Draeger of Gold Medal Motion in Wisconsin also counts on aquatic sports therapy to get his Olympic-level decathletes “Gladiator-Ready” for competition. He has seen great results using hydrotherapy jets with deep tissue massage. “This an integral part of our treatment, to strip the muscle as deep as we can go in order to get the muscle ready not only to decrease lactic acid but to actually elongate the muscle fibers and get fresh oxygenated blood supply in between the fibers so that muscle is ready to contract and ready to go,” said Dr. Draeger.
St. Louis Rams Head Athletic Trainer Reggie Scott swears by underwater treadmills for conditioning professional football players. He says the players appreciate how it feels like running on land, but with less impact. He’s able to adjust jet resistance to modify workouts from a quick warm-up to an intense cardio session. The treadmill also offers players the ability to shuffle sideways and backpedal without joint strain, which is useful for surgery recovery. Reggie describes the underwater treadmill as “. . . a tool that is heavily needed . . . a big tool that will help get guys back.”
Other professional teams that use aquatic sports therapy include the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia Eagles, San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Lions, Toronto Maple Leafs and Seattle Seahawks. That many certified athletic trainers can’t be wrong about the power of underwater treadmills and hydrotherapy jets to improve performance and accelerate injury recovery for competitive athletes.
The History of Hydrotherapy
The terms hydrotherapy and aquatic or aqua therapy are often used interchangeably, but they are actually very different. The term aquatic therapy is more specific to physical therapy that is performed in the water. Aquatic therapy uses the resistance of water instead of weights in rehabilitating patients after injury or with chronic illness, avoiding the amount of weight placed on the joints by exercise outside the water. Hydrotherapy is derived from the prefix “hydro,” meaning water, and refers to the therapeutic use of water in any way, including ice packs, vaporizers and hot baths.
The history of hydrotherapy dates all the way back to the 5th century BC when Hippocrates promoted bathing in spring water to improve health. There is evidence of hydrotherapy in other early civilizations including the Chinese, Egyptian and Roman cultures. There was a sharp decline in the use of public baths in the West however after the fall of the Roman Empire because Christian culture frowned upon public nudity.
Hydrotherapy came back into favor during the Middle Ages as doctors used mineral springs rich in sulfur and iodine to treat skin conditions and female infertility. In the 10th century Benedictine monks rebuilt the Bath Abbey in England (originally destroyed by Norse invaders) to take advantage of the therapeutic benefits of hot springs. The rise of the scientific method in the 18th century brought more study to the field of hydrotherapy and a number of physicians began publishing books on the health benefits of cold and warm bathing.
Modern hydrotherapy was influenced heavily by Vincent Priessnitz and Bavarian monk Sebastian Kneipp. In 1829 Austrian farmer Priessnitz began performing “water cure” treatments for conditions such as pneumonia, typhus and back pain on his property. Soon people were flocking to his farm for treatment and publications of his methods influenced treatment of soldiers in the Franco-German War. Kneipp took up where Priessnitz left off and went on to develop a systematic and controlled application of hydrotherapy. He published the book My Water Cure in 1886 and it helped spread the practice to many other countries. A major factor in the growth of hydrotherapy during this period was the fact that it could be practiced cheaply at home at a time when many people couldn’t afford or access a doctor.
Today hydrotherapy is practiced both as alternative medicine and as part of high-tech hospital treatments. Steam therapy, cold-water immersion, saunas and whirlpools are all used frequently to improve health and wellness. Outside of the U.S., the term hydrotherapy is frequently used interchangeably with aquatic therapy but the distinction between the two is important when seeking aquatic physical therapy in the United States.