The most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis (OA) is characterized by the gradual breakdown of cartilage at the end of bones. The resulting discomfort can range from a mild inconvenience to near-debilitating symptoms that seriously impact quality of life. Because OA usually affects joints, it can be difficult to get the regular exercise typically recommended to keep soft tissues that support joints flexible and strong. Many Los Angeles spine surgeons have noticed that some patients even reach a point where gentle forms of exercise like yoga are too painful. If you’re hoping to avoid surgery as a solution, consider the possibilities with aquatic therapy.
Aquatic therapy refers to any type of exercise or activity performed in water, and it’s usually meant to be done in some type of structured way. For therapeutic purposes, it can be helpful to perform water-based exercises in a heated pool because it increases circulation around joints affected by OA.
The natural buoyancy of water automatically eases stress on joints already stressed or weakened by OA. When you get into the water, there will be less pressure exerted on your joints as you move, which may also minimize inflammation since nearby tissues won’t be stressed in the same way they would be on land. Aquatic therapy can also be helpful for people with OA for the following reasons:
• Water compresses muscles and joints in a way similar to what’s experienced when wearing a compression bandage.
• The added stimulation from water may dull the part of the nervous system responsible for detecting and interpreting muscle pain, which is sometimes an issue for OA patients.
• Water provides the resistance necessary to prevent soft tissues around joints from becoming weak or atrophied without the need to use heavy equipment, allowing for more freedom of movement.
• The gentle flow of water provides a type of natural massage, which can help with circulation. Equipment used during aqua therapy, like water paddles and aquatic gloves, can create an added flow of water around specific areas affected by OA.
While most people think of swimming when they think of water, this is only one possible form of aquatic therapy that may benefit OA patients. There is almost as much variety with water-based exercise as there is with land-based exercise. In fact, water exercises can target all of the core muscle groups that take some of the pressure off of joints. In addition to swimming, types of aquatic therapy that may be good for people affected by OA include:
• Water aerobics – If you want to target multiple muscle groups and joints equally, a water aerobics workout can help you achieve this goal.
• Pool yoga – The slow, controlled movements of yoga can be transferred to similar movements performed in water. The weightlessness of water may also increase the ability to stretch while also boosting the fluidity of joint movements.
• Aqua cycling – This is basically stationary bike riding in a pool, and it’s a less stressful method of enjoying the many benefits of cycling in a way that’s gentler on joints, particularly those in the knees and hips.
• Aquatic weight training – With this form of “weight pushing,” muscles are stimulated in a way that’s gentler on OA-affected joints, and it’s done by using different types of foam weights to build muscle strength using the natural resistance of water.
• Ai chi – A specialized active form of aquatic therapy, ai chi uses the same movements associated with land-based tai chi in a less stressful way. Ai chi is done with a series of slow, controlled movements coupled with strength-building and relaxation techniques. The goal is to retain or restore range of motion around joints affected by osteoarthritis.
If aquatic therapy allows you to get enough exercise to maintain or restore flexibility to some extent, you may be in a better position to benefit from other non-surgical pain management options for OA. For instance, corticosteroid injections might ease inflammation around joints enough to allow you to combine water-based therapy with some gentle land-based exercises.
If aquatic therapy isn’t relieving your chronic pain, you may want to consider minimally invasive surgery. There are many different types of fusion procedures and alternatives to spinal fusion. Los Angeles patients can call The Spine Institute today at 310-828-7757 to schedule an in-person evaluation.