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Aquatic Therapy for Chronic Pain

Female in HydroWorx Therapy Pool for Chronic Pain

One of the most debilitating conditions a person can endure is chronic pain, which is any type of pain that lasts for more than six months. Chronic pain can occur in many different parts of the human body from the back to the foot, and it often prevents sufferers from performing key functions in life, such as work and social activity. There are various treatments for chronic pain, but one of the most effective is aquatic therapy.

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When the body is submerged to the chest, 80% of the body’s weight is reduced from the equation. This allows a patient to retrain muscles and joints in a soothing setting where the body can heal faster and exercise more easily. The warmth of the water works directly on the skin as a pain reliever, while the pressure of the water offers resistance that makes the exercises involved in a given line of treatment sufficiently challenging. At the same time, the reduced weight of the body itself makes it easier for the patient to focus on strength and mobility retraining in the most necessary areas.

Woman in Pool with text When the body is submerged to the check 80% of the body's weight is removed from the equation

Understanding Chronic vs. Non-Chronic Pain

You may also hear non-chronic conditions, including pain, referred to as “acute” conditions. They are characterized by sudden onset and the tendency to rapidly worsen. Generally speaking, this type of pain is how our bodies respond to discomfort and injuries.

On the other hand, chronic pain and other conditions develop and worsen much more gradually. In some cases, you might not even notice the slow creep of these symptoms until they have been present for months — and until they have affected your life in an obvious way. Examples of chronic conditions include osteoporosis, kidney disease, stubborn back pain and many others.

Chronic pain can manifest as a response to any number of factors, including old age, unaddressed injuries, poor diet or posture and medical disorders and diseases.

Types of Chronic Pain

Graphic of male back with the text over the course of their life up to 80% of adults will experience some form of chronic pain

Chronic pain comes in various forms, the most common of which is chronic back pain. Throughout the course of life, 80% of adults experience some form of chronic pain, which typically affects the lower back, but it also occurs behind and just below the neck in some individuals. The second most common form of chronic pain is arthritis, which affects joints along the upper and lower extremities. Other types of chronic pain affect sufferers in the chest and abdominal regions.

Aquatic therapy works as a treatment method for various types of chronic pain. When it comes to stiffening pain in the lower extremities, an underwater treadmill can be used to help a patient regain his or her walking vigor. For pain along the upper body, the soothing qualities of the water work to heal while the patient performs moderate exercise. The underwater setting is equally challenging and supportive for recovering patients.

Chronic Back/Spine/Neck Pain

The most common types of chronic pain are in the back, neck, and spine

Discomfort along the back, spine and neck are three of the most distressing forms of chronic pain. Back pain results from stress along the vertebrae, or the surrounding nerves, muscles or bones. The majority of adults experience periods of back pain, whether it’s due to age, injury or work-related stress. Neck pain stems from stress in the upper back and lower neck, and it affects roughly two-thirds of the population at some point in life.

Aquatic therapy is one of the most effective ways to treat pain along the back, spine and neck. The soothing effects of water work to alleviate pain in the muscles and nerves of pain-afflicted areas. For patients who suffer partial loss of mobility due to chronic pain in the aforementioned regions, water reduces the stress of body weight and offers resistance that makes the setting optimal for gradual strength training. Water-based exercise can especially benefit anyone who suffers from back or spinal pain due to strains or disc issues.


A strain is an injury that occurs when damage is inflicted on the fiber of a muscle. In most cases, a strain is the result of undue physical exertion in some area of the body. A competitive athlete, for example, might overstretch a muscle during a ball game and wind up with a strain. Symptoms of a strain include stiffness and discoloration around the injured area.

Water therapy can provide relief to a strain by soothing the muscle within a supportive setting of warm water. With the weight of the body reduced while submerged, it’s easier for the patient to gain back strength in the strained area through slow, repetitive movements. As the therapy continues, a patient can regain movements that might have been impaired immediately following the injury.


Patients recovering from sprains can regain range of motion with an underwater treadmill

A sprain occurs when a ligament is torn at a joint within the body. A sprain is most liable to occur when undue force or strain is placed on a particular joint, such as when a wrist or elbow is stretched beyond its natural range of function. Sprains most commonly occur in the wrists and ankles, but they can also occur elsewhere. Some sprains are minor, but others cause extensive damage and necessitate months of rehabilitation.

For the patient recovering from a sprain, an underwater treadmill is the perfect way to regain range of motion at the injured joint. Water therapy offers a soothing setting that eases body tension and allows for slower yet easier movement. As a sprained joint is treated with aquatic therapy, the pain subsides, which allows the patient to slowly regain strength and mobility through underwater exercise.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease isn’t merely a chronic and painful condition — it’s also a degenerative one. The symptoms of Parkinson’s can be traced to insufficient dopamine production in the human brain as well as the loss of neurons, which are the cells responsible for transferring nerve impulses.

Because Parkinson’s patients experience tremors alternating with rigidity of the limbs and joints, and because their ability to complete finer movements and retain balance is compromised on a daily basis, the condition is often associated with physical pain as well as the depression that frequently accompanies it.

Aquatic therapy can help with both pain and depression. It also lets clients exercise their limbs and improve their gait without the fear of falling, which patients frequently cite as a source of frustration. Patients will also enjoy reduced swelling, improved circulation, better sensory perception and less blood pooling in their extremities. All of these benefits result in less chronic pain and an improved quality of life.

Spinal Stenosis

When the spinal canal suffers unusual narrowing, the condition is known as spinal stenosis. The condition can occur at any point along the spine, but the exact location of the narrowing determines what part of the body will bear the impact. The symptoms of spinal stenosis range from numbness to pain, and there’s often a loss of motor control. Two of the most common areas where spinal stenosis occurs are along the lumbar and cervical curves.

Through aquatic exercise and therapy, a patient with spinal stenosis can gradually regain his or her motor abilities. With a regimen of slow but steady exercise to the upper and lower extremities, tasks that would have been difficult for a patient to accomplish could eventually become less challenging. For legs impacted by spinal stenosis, an underwater treadmill allows the patient to engage in physical activity without the strain of full body weight.

Herniated Disc

Aquatic therapy is an ideal method to remedy the pain and motor challenges of disc herniation

Commonly referred to as a slipped disc, a herniated disc is the result of a tear in the firm outer ring of an invertebrate disc, where the soft central portion protrudes outward over the rings. Herniated discs are usually the result of age-related issues in the anulus fibrosus, though the problem can also be brought on through activities that place undue stress on the spinal region, such as excessive lifting.

Water therapy is an ideal method to remedy the pain and motor challenges that are often symptomatic of disc herniation. With the combination of slow movement, resistance and weight-alleviation that a water setting provides, a patient can gradually regain some of his or her mobility and strength.

Joint Pain

Joint pain typically occurs along the upper and lower extremities as the result of intense recurrent stress to a particular joint. In some cases, joint pain is due to degenerative effects that come with age. Non-inflammatory joint pain is clinically known as arthralgia — a distinct condition from inflammatory joint pain, which is more commonly referred to as arthritis. Arthralgia is sometimes triggered by infections.

Aquatic therapy is one of the most effective forms of treatment for non-inflammatory joint pain. For a patient who copes with pain in the elbow, knees, wrists or ankles, water can help sooth tension and offer a supportive environment in which to retrain affected joints and surrounding muscle tissue.


Image of hands with quote Arthritis is an inflammatory joint disorder that exists in more than 100 different forms and affects roughly one in four adults

Arthritis is an inflammatory joint disorder that exists in more than 100 different forms and affects roughly one in four adults. The two most common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid. The former stems from the breakdown of cartilage and underlying bone tissue, while the latter is a degenerative disorder of undetermined causes. Arthritis is generally characterized by swollen joints, stiffness and joint pain.

Water is one of the most hospitable settings in which a person who suffers arthritis can regain mobility and overcome pain in affected joints of the body. For arthritis in the lower extremities, a water treadmill allows for challenging yet supportive exercise in and around the affected joints. Through a regular regimen of water-based activity over a span of months, a patient can overcome some of the pain and immobility brought on by arthritis.

Trauma to a Joint or Limb

graphic of a female running in a pool with the quote A patient with a broken arm can use an underwater treadmill to keep the legs active while the arm heals

Body pain of the temporary variety can result from any given number of causes, such as accidents and sports injuries. The pain will occur on and around a wound, and it will gradually subside as the natural healing process concludes. However, the pain that surrounds a wound can still be debilitating for a period of weeks or even months, during which time a person may experience stiffness or loss of mobility.

When a person who suffers from temporary pain engages in aquatic therapy, recovery is generally faster and healthier. The soothing properties of water help to ease the pain of the wounded area, while the exercise gained during each session helps keep muscles strong. Unlike regular exercise, which can be difficult to engage in during times of injury, underwater therapy allows a patient to remain physically active during what would otherwise be a sedentary period of recovery.


Accidents are a leading cause of injuries that result in prolonged periods of pain in the joints and limbs. However, as long as the injury isn’t too extensive or damaging, the pain will likely subside once the wounded area heals. A fractured bone, for instance, can take anywhere from three weeks to three months to heal, depending on the range of damage and the age of the patient. During this period of recovery, aquatic therapy can serve as a physical coping mechanism.

A patient with a broken arm can use an underwater treadmill to keep the legs active while the arm heals. Once the cast comes off, further sessions of aquatic therapy can help the patient readjust to full use of the arm.

Cerebral Palsy

Water’s ability to address neurological conditions, including cerebral palsy, is well-known. Most cases of this condition involve chronic pain.

Although hydro therapy and underwater exercise are not the only ways to address the symptoms associated with cerebral palsy in children and adults, it does have some benefits that other therapy models don’t offer, including:

  • Water’s viscosity provides continuous resistance in a way that land-based exercises do not. In fact, when you walk in water, you do ten times the work you’d do on land.
  • Water encourages a wide range of movement, which is vital for individuals who want to improve their physical functioning and confidence.

And for any other application, cerebral palsy included, water also benefits clients and patients by reducing the time required to recover from treatment and training sessions. It also protects the body from additional strains and injuries and even benefits cardiovascular health by causing the heart to pump more blood than it would during a more traditional exercise.

Sports Injuries

Graphic of female running in pool with quote Aquatic Therapy is perhaps the most innovative solution for pain relief in the aftermath of sports-related injuries

Injuries are a common occurrence in contact and solo sports alike. An injury during a sporting activity can result from blunt impact with another player, or from an overextension of a given muscle. Sometimes, a simple fall can result in fractured ribs or broken bones. In any case, the period of recovery can take a player off the field for an entire season.

Aquatic therapy is perhaps the most innovative solution for pain relief in the aftermath of sports-related injuries. Within the soothing warmth of a therapeutic pool, jets can be adjusted to different levels of pressure for the purpose of muscle relief. In advance of full recovery, different types of weight-training and cardiovascular exercises can be employed at chest-deep levels to help regain stamina.

The Benefits of Underwater Exercise For Chronic Pain

With an underwater treadmill, chronic pain sufferers can engage in physical activity within a comfortable setting. As patients get into the aquatic exercise routine, their health can improve in numerous areas, from decreased blood pressure to reduced stress.

Essentially, underwater treadmills offer the combined benefits of exercise and full-body aquatic support. Here’s how patients could benefit from aquatic therapy:

  • Patients often report improved flexibility after enjoying aquatic therapy. This is great for anybody who has had their lifestyle compromised by mobility issues.
  • If you’re concerned about coordination or balance, you might find this type of therapy beneficial. If an injury has left a patient questioning future physical abilities, you should give underwater exercise a try.
  • For anybody who has had their locomotion compromised — whether from atrophy, an injury, an operation or simply due to the coming of old age — underwater exercises and therapy can help you achieve a new lease on life and potentially extend your active years.

Another form of aquatic physical therapy involves massage. For sufferers of chronic pain, underwater massage brings a physically soothing sensation that helps relieve tense muscles and joints. Of course, many people enjoy massage even if they don’t suffer from chronic pain or stress, and so the benefits of massage in an aquatic setting appeal to a relatively broad base of individuals.

For people who lead active, busy lives, aquatic massage could make for an ideal activity after a hard day at work. By serving as a comforting, leisurely activity that stimulates the skin and muscles, underwater massage is beneficial in the mental and physical sense.

One demographic that can most benefit from underwater exercise and massage are people with arthritis. While arthritic conditions are incurable, they are treatable since pain can be eased through certain forms of physical therapy, of which aquatic exercise is a perfect example.

By engaging in light forms of underwater activity, a person with arthritis can enjoy heightened levels of bodily comfort and reduced pain levels, and even achieve more fluid movements. Over time, underwater exercise can help an individual improve his or her ailing motor skills and better cope with arthritis. As such, aquatic exercise devices provide an enjoyable means to function around the limitations of arthritis.

Three Chronic Pain Case Studies

Although it’s possible to pursue this type of therapy at home, the best medicinal results almost always come from working with trained specialists. As a result, you’ll most frequently find underwater therapy facilities attached to hospitals, outpatient rehabilitation centers and sports medicine clinics that cater to athletes.

If you’re looking for some real-world success stories to demonstrate why aquatic therapy has emerged as an important modality all its own, here are three case studies:

  • Case Study #1: One of our favorite case studies involved a triathlete — Dave Cummings — and his recovery from a difficult auto accident. After suffering severe damage to his back, a compound fracture and the loss of 68% of his blood, David used aquatic therapy to help him regain his mobility.
  • Case Study #2: Another success we’re very proud of concerns the neurological applications of underwater therapy. When a stroke left Lois Jordan with the prognosis that she’d never walk again, she decided there must be a better way. After just five months of water therapy, Lois’ condition has improved almost miraculously. She can walk under her own power while in the water and only needs a walker to do the same on land.
  • Case Study #3: For our third case study, you can watch Shannon Singletary of the University of Mississippi describe his methods for rehabilitating a distance runner who experienced a hip fracture. As you likely know, hip injuries can be exceptionally challenging, especially for athletes — but underwater therapy was up to the job and helped him regain his mobility.

In short, nearly anybody — from any walk of life, so to speak — can benefit from the healing capabilities of underwater therapy.

Get Aquatic Therapy Products From HydroWorx

Graphic of pool with quote Aquatic Therapy can help people from every walk of life

Water therapy for chronic pain and stress can benefit people of all ages and backgrounds. Regardless of whether or not an individual suffers from clinical PTSD, water therapy for depression is an effective treatment against feelings of despair. After just a few minutes of aquatic exercise and water-induced temperature change, a person’s mood and energy can be lifted from the states of anxiousness and lethargy that often accompany depression.

In wellness centers across the U.S., aquatic exercise devices have grown in popularity as more people reap the mental and physical benefits of water therapy. At HydroWorx, we’ve been selling underwater treadmills and resistance-therapy jets for pools of various sizes since 1998. To learn more about the aquatic therapy products in our inventory, visit our products pages or contact us online for a free product guide.