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Hydrotherapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Hydrotherapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a frequently misunderstood condition. Many people — even professional physical therapists — confuse it with osteoarthritis (OA), a similar condition that stems from different causes and demands a separate treatment approach.

Unlike OA, rheumatoid arthritis can affect patients at any age and is not caused by the deterioration of joints. Instead, rheumatoid arthritis is caused by an autoimmune disorder — when the immune system has trouble distinguishing healthy tissue from harmful antigens.

Because of this, the onset can be rapid, with a patient’s life and mobility changing almost overnight. Since a patient will not have time to adjust their body to the disease’s effects, physical therapy — one of the most common forms of treatment — must take a different approach than when treating OA.

What Is Hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy, also known as aquatic therapy, is controlled exercise done in a pool. Many people are familiar with water aerobics — this is a good example of a type of hydrotherapy where a fitness instructor leads the class. Hydrotherapy can either be one-on-one or in a group.

hydrotherapy for rheumatoid arthritis

Hydrotherapy as Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Generally, hydrotherapy can slow the damage of rheumatoid arthritis. Some benefits include:

  • Relaxing muscles: Aquatic wellness pools have warm water, which can loosen and relax muscles, allowing patients to stretch out areas that may be too painful to move on land.
  • Improving circulation: Warm water can encourage blood circulation throughout the body, nourishing the muscles and promoting healing.
  • Reducing pressure on joints: Water creates buoyancy, which supports the limbs and reduces the overall pressure on the joints. 
  • Creating resistance: Water creates resistance as patients walk, helping them gain strength.

Beneficial Exercises

Hydrotherapy is available for people of all ages, as it can be adaptable to fit any fitness level. Those with rheumatoid arthritis can gain strength in the water with the following exercises:

  • Water walking for aerobic conditioning and strength
  • Forward lunges for flexibility and range of motion
  • Hip kicks for strength, flexibility and range of motion

Kathy’s Story

Kathy Ellis was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after suffering from a broken foot that healed, but the pain never subsided. Little did she know she had rheumatoid arthritis for a while prior to that incident. Along with rheumatoid arthritis, Kathy has suffered her whole life with asthma, preventing her from pursuing any aerobic activities.

Her diagnosis led her to the HydroWorx pool at the Robert L. Sharp Health and Fitness Center at Jenks High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Starting slow, her head trainer, Herb Rhea, had her begin walking for about seven to eight minutes at a time at 0.5 mph to 1.0 mph.

Due to the water’s buoyancy, Kathy could walk, carrying only 15% of her body weight and allowing her to do things that doctors told her she could not do on land. Walking underwater removes up to 85-90% of body weight, relieving pressure from joints.

Kathy has progressed so much in her rehab that she has even surprised herself — from 1.0mph at 8 minutes at a time up to 4.5mph for about 35 to 40 minutes is a huge accomplishment. Kathy is now jogging in the water — something she has never done before.

Overall, she had lost weight, improved her balance and boosted her motivation from the therapy and training sessions. Since beginning her aquatic therapy, Kathy has not suffered from one asthma attack.

Kathy Ellis is just one example of how aquatic therapy in a HydroWorx pool can alter the way someone with rheumatoid arthritis lives their life for the better. Watch her training session in the pool as trainer Herb Rhea discusses her progress and aquatic therapy regimen.

HydroWorx Aquatic Wellness Pools

If patients experience symptoms or are diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, they can benefit from hydrotherapy. HydroWorx creates high-technology aquatic wellness pools with several features, including resistance jets and a deep massage therapy hose. Our pools are in facilities across the U.S. — find one near you!


6 comments on “Hydrotherapy for Rheumatoid Arthritis”

    1. Each client and plan of care is going to be a bit different for each customer and how they are tolerating the treatments.
      We know land based therapy should always be apart of the treatment plan especially as you look to discharging your patients. What we have seen other customers do is start heavier with aquatic in the beginning of their plan of care while they get the clients pain under control, increase mobility, range of motion, increase strength and compliance with the program. As they progress weeks out start adding more land based therapy.

    1. The benefit of exercise and movement in water is to relieve pain and maintain or increase fitness levels. Swimming is certainly a viable option if it reduces the pain and keeps you moving! It may not have the same muscle strengthening benefits as underwater treadmill running.

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