Aqua Therapy and Cerebral Palsy

For children and adults with cerebral palsy, aqua therapy can provide physical and mental benefits when provided under the supervision of a certified, trained therapist. With guided therapy and the help of the water’s detoxifying and restorative properties, this type of therapy helps promote physical function.

The buoyancy of the water allows cerebral palsy patients to ambulate more effectively, making both anaerobic and aerobic exercises effective and safe for patients. Learn more about this type of therapy, different exercises and programs, the benefits, and what to expect from therapy sessions.

Aquatic Therapy Explained

Often referred to as aquatic therapy, aqua therapy involves the use of water and the resistance water provides to help improve a patient’s physical functions and abilities. The medical community accepts this form of therapy as an effective method of re-educating and rehabilitating the body, and the water can provide a healing environment, particularly for people with cerebral palsy. Aqua therapy activities all take place in either a heated or non-heated pool.

More than half of the body weight is made up of water, and body weight and gravity impact the movement of the body. With aqua therapy, these factors are nearly reversed, since human body weight is reduced by approximately 90% in the water. This gives cerebral palsy patients the ability to ambulate in the water in a way that doesn’t stress the musculoskeletal system, offering an excellent environment for cerebral palsy patients to improve their physical function, even if they are not ambulatory.

The use of water sets aqua therapy apart from traditional physical therapy because it offers detoxifying and restorative properties. By offering patients buoyancy, they can safely and effectively perform anaerobic exercises.

When warm water is used for therapy, it helps provide a massage effect to ligaments, muscles, and joints, which may also help to reduce pain. Some of the goals of aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy patients include improving their psychological outlook, improving physical control and function, and increasing quality of life and independence.

Types of Aquatic Therapy

Many different aqua therapy exercises and programs are used to treat cerebral palsy. The type of therapy used will depend on the individual patient, his or her age, the severity of the disease, other medical problems, and current fitness level.

Some of the different types of aqua therapy exercises that may be used include:

  • Aquatic yoga
  • Walking in deep water
  • Walking exercises with assistance
  • Swimming (at every level)
  • Motion exercises that are water based
  • Breath control exercises
  • Balance exercises with the aid of flotation devices
  • Social water games

Many different types of equipment, beyond the use of pools, may be used during aqua therapy sessions. Weights, flotation devices, balls, compression vests, and toys may be used to aid in therapy. Along with safe, high-quality pools designed for therapy sessions, easy grip edges, build-in equipment, ladders, and safety rails may be used.

Benefits of Aqua Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

Aqua therapy offers numerous benefits for patients with cerebral palsy, including both physical and mental benefits. Some of the benefits of water therapy include:

  • Decreases discomfort post therapy session
  • Reduces tension and stress
  • Offers resistance
  • Increases cardiovascular fitness, since the heart must pump more blood when the body is submerged
  • Relieves tension and pain in joints and muscles
  • Reduces the chance of injury during therapy sessions
  • Allows for a wider range of movement

Traditional physical therapy offers many benefits when used for patients with cerebral palsy. However, water therapy offers added benefits, including revitalizing, oxygenating, and hydrating the musculoskeletal system of the body. By releases the gravitational pull, patients enjoy greater range of movement, making balancing, stretching, and reputation easier.

Water viscosity also offers resistance, which is often used in aqua therapy programs. Simply walking in the water comes with 10 times more resistance than walking on land. While patients enjoy a comforting, soothing, aquatic environment, they still get the benefits of intense, deep exercise.

When administered by a trained, professional therapist, aqua therapy offers the following physical benefits:

  • Improved flexibility
  • Better metabolism
  • Improved muscle tone
  • Better cardiovascular fitness
  • Increased stability
  • Fewer sleep disturbances
  • Increased endurance
  • Better core strength
  • Fewer problems with muscle spasticity
  • Reduced joint stress
  • Extended range of motion
  • Improved circulation
  • Fewer problems with discomfort and pain

Along with physical benefits, aqua therapy offers many psychological benefits as well. As patients engage in exercises in the water, it often offers a sense of accomplishment, which improves self-esteem and overall disposition. Other psychological benefits of aqua therapy include:

  • Higher levels of self-confidence
  • Increased socialization skills
  • Improved quality of life
  • Encourages stress relief and relaxation
  • Better sense of independence
  • Improvement in sensory integration

Aquatic Therapy Process

Before an aqua therapy session, the patient’s overall health, capabilities, and challenges will be discussed to come up with a therapy program that best suits their needs. Once a session begins, it will start with a warm-up period before immersion into a pool. This warm-up will include various stretches tailored to the patient’s needs.

After a warm-up period, the therapist will lead the patient in a series of exercises. These exercises may be done with the use of flotation devices, such as life jackets, floating barbells, safety belts, body boards, or pool noodles. The tailored exercise routine will be designed to help expand and maximize the capabilities of the patient. However, therapists will start patients slowly, gradually increasing the frequency and length of therapeutic exercises as the individual’s coordination, stamina, and flexibility increase over time.

In many cases, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation is used within aquatic therapy that places the focus on conditioning, cardio, and rhythmic movements that help cerebral palsy patients increase control and movement of their limbs. These types of exercises may include:

  • Walking or running in shallow water
  • Walking or running in deep water
  • Swimming
  • Water kicking
  • Water yoga
  • Water based tai chi

With the assistance of the water’s buoyancy, cerebral palsy patients are able to get into positions that they may not otherwise achieve in other types of therapeutic environments. Therapists will also work with patients as they transition the movements they learn in the water to land, which will only further improve their physical capabilities.

In most cases, aqua therapy sessions are between 30 and 45 minutes long, depending on the unique needs of the patient. Patients will generally need to have swimming shoes, towels, and a swimsuit for their sessions.

Aqua therapy offers a safe, beneficial form of therapy for cerebral palsy patients. Offering both physical and psychological benefits, it’s a method of therapy that has a lot to offer. With the guidance of a professional therapist, patients often enjoy improved physical and mental health, improving their overall quality of life.

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