Hydrotherapy and arthritis

hydrotherapy and arthritis

What is the difference between hydrotherapy and swimming?

Swimming has many health benefits. It is enjoyable and especially helps people with arthritis because the joints can be exercised while supported in the water. Some swimming pools, therefore, reserve restricted entry times for people with joint problems.

Hydrotherapy involves special exercises which take place in a warm-water pool (usually at a temperature of 33–37ºC). This is warmer than normal swimming pools. Patients are referred by their doctor or rheumatology nurse to a chartered physiotherapist who will decide whether or not hydrotherapy is the best form of treatment.

The hydrotherapy pool is usually in the physiotherapy department of a hospital. Not all physiotherapy departments have a hydrotherapy pool – occasionally you may need to travel to another hospital.

What are the benefits of hydrotherapy?

The warm temperature of the water allows your muscles to relax and eases the pain in your joints, making it easier to exercise.

The water supports your weight. This helps to relieve painful joints and can also increase the range of movement of your joints. By pushing your arms and legs against the water you can also improve your muscle strength.

Who benefits most from hydrotherapy?

Usually people with arthritis in several joints find most benefit from hydrotherapy. This is because all the joints can be exercised easily in the warm, supportive water. Hydrotherapy also helps people who feel pain when walking, since the water provides extra support.

Hydrotherapy is sometimes also used after joint replacement surgery and for people with back pain or ankylosing spondylitis.

What happens on my first appointment?

You will be seen by a physiotherapist either in the physiotherapy department or on the hospital ward.

You might not go in the water on your first appointment. The physiotherapist will ask you about your arthritis and problems resulting from it, and will ask about your general health. Using this information and that provided by the doctor, the physiotherapist will then decide whether hydrotherapy is appro-priate for you. The initial meeting will take approximately 45 minutes. If a course of hydrotherapy is agreed you will probably have five or six sessions of about 30 minutes each.

Will I need a swimming costume?

You will usually need to take your own swimming costume and towel.

What if I can’t swim?

You do not have to be able to swim to have hydrotherapy. The pool is quite shallow so you can exercise well within your depth. Buoyancy aids are also available and there will always be a physiotherapist in the pool and an assistant on the side of the pool. Even if you are worried about water, you should try hydrotherapy (if suggested by your physiotherapist) as almost all patients find the warm water very soothing and enjoyable.

How do I get into the pool?

To get into the pool you need to climb down a few steps. For people who cannot manage steps there will be a mechanical hoist to lower you into the water. Most pools have different depths, varying from waist height to chest height. There is also a rail around the edge of the pool for extra support.

What happens at the end of a course of hydrotherapy?

Exercise helps almost all forms of arthritis, so after your course of hydrotherapy you will probably be advised to continue your exercises in your local swimming pool. It is worth investigating your local facilities as some pools have special sessions where the water temperature is increased. Some sports centres may have general exercise groups in water, but you should speak to your physiotherapist or doctor before joining these. In some areas local arthritis support groups (such as Arthritis Care and the National Ankylosing Spondylitis Society) may hire a hospital or health club pool for regular hydrotherapy sessions.

Gentle swimming can also help, but again speak to a health professional first.

What are the side-effects of hydrotherapy?

Hydrotherapy is one of the safest treatments for arthritis and back pain. The warmth of the water and the exercise may make you feel tired after treatment. This is normal.

When is hydrotherapy not appropriate?

With certain medical conditions hydrotherapy may not be suitable. These include:

  • wound or skin infections
  • viruses/stomach upset
  • a raised temperature
  • angina/heart problems
  • incontinence
  • chest infections

You must tell the physiotherapist if you have any of the above conditions. If you have any doubts you should also discuss these with your physiotherapist. If you feel unwell on the day of your hydrotherapy appointment you should contact the physiotherapy/hydrotherapy department.

What is spa therapy?

Hydrotherapy in spa water is commonly used in Continental Europe. It is believed that the mineral content of the spa water makes it better than tap water for bathing, and, in some cases, drinking. However, it probably doesn’t matter what sort of water is used for bathing; it’s just that in Europe there are many naturally-occurring hot springs.

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