Research on Warm Water Therapy and the Brain

Research on Warm Water Therapy and the Brain

The following blog post has been summarized from the recent presentation, “The Brain and Aquatic Therapy” by Dr. Bruce Becker, MD, MS, FACSM, Clinical Professor at University of Washington.

Warm Water Therapy for Mental Illnesses

At the Combined Sections Meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) in February, Dr. Becker presented The Brain and Aquatic Therapy as part of the Aquatic Physical Therapy Section of APTA. Dr. Becker, a physiatrist with a lifelong interest in aquatic therapy thrives on researching the brain and aquatic therapy. As a physician for nearly 40 years, he has experienced patients with severe neuro problems, stroke, vision and spinal cord injuries. He is captivated by seeing how fast his patients’ recover in the water and how much they enjoy the process of aquatic therapy. It is a win, win.

On Friday, February 17 at the Combined Sections Meeting of APTA, Dr. Becker started his presentation by posing the question, “What the heck is happening?”

Through his research, Dr. Becker has discovered when patients are in the water they experience anxiety reduction and mental relaxation. During aquatic immersion in warm water, he also noticed nervous system activity is reduced and balance is improved. The combination of these effects may improve brain function with an increase in working memory, language skills and processing speed. Case reports have also shown that aquatic immersion positively impacts brain blood flow and exercise with Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, autism, dementia and ADHD patients. Warm water immersion produces a balancing of physical activity and nervous system function which is associated with:

  • Reduced cardiac irritability
  • A drop-in blood pressure
  • Decreased inflammatory processes
  • Anxiety relaxation and mental relaxation
  • Improvement in mood state and reduction in mood disorders
  • Improvement in working memory
  • Increase in cognitive task-performance, creative problem-solving and cognitive flexibility

During his presentation, Dr. Becker shared a client’s success story from his colleague, Dr. Kent Myers, MD, Medical Director at Royal Oaks Lifecare Community. Dr. Myers experienced a success with aquatic therapy and a dementia patient which was overwhelmingly impressive.

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Case Report: Aquatic Therapy and Dementia  

Dr. Myers shared a story about a gentleman named Bill, who is a brilliant man but began developing dementia. Dr. Myers attempted to treat the disease with high dosages of medicine but it did not help. After the medicine did not work, Bill was placed in the dementia center and continued to deteriorate. He could only feed himself; he couldn’t stand or assist in his own transfers. He wasn’t able to follow the directions during physical therapy which is what gave Dr. Myers an idea. Why not try aquatic therapy? As soon as he got in the pool, Bill was present: he was able to talk, follow along with instructions and conversations. He was subjective while on land he was not. Once, he got into the pool it was like he woke up. It was remarkable when Bill turned around and looked at Dr. Myers with a big smile and waved.

Dr. Myers expresses how amazing it was to see how well he did both immediately and long term. During the second session, Bill was able to follow instructions as he did in the first session. He began using the chair lift to get in and out of the pool.

  • He was able to perform 10 out of 45 minutes of modified watsu and halliwick.
  • He was able to touch the floor half of the time in the pool and eventually in sessions later on, was weight-shifting and standing.
  • He then began entering and exiting by the ramp and eventually the stairs with minimal assistance.
  • The best part was when Bill put his head under the water and held his breath for 15.

It is remarkable to see a patient who was struggling with everyday tasks on land and then was able to feel alive again in the water.

“There are no medications that can do that to a person,” says, Dr. Myers who is trying to pinpoint the quantifying factor that led to such drastic physiological improvements in the water.

Dr. Becker ended his presentation by telling the audience that more research needs to be done because, “Happy brains are all wet.”

View Dr. Becker’s full presentation today.>>

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4 comments on “Research on Warm Water Therapy and the Brain”

  1. I am 32 and have a lazy eye. I have been patching and doing vision for almost 5 months to correct the problem. I have decided to experiment with immersion water therapy to see if it helps. Today when I got out my husband noticed that both of my eyes were looking straight forward so we took a picture (my lazy eye is generally always off to the side). I don’t know if it was the bath, but I am going to continue doing it for the next few months to see if we continue to see a difference when combined with the other therapy I’m doing. Have you ever heard of anything like this?

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