Back pain is no stranger to most of us. About 84% of adults have back pain sometime in their lives. For many people back pain is self-limiting. But it can become more of a problem if it continues more than 3 months which is considered chronic. So what about aquatic therapy for low back pain? A study based out of China randomized supervised aquatic exercise versus traditional physical therapy in 113 adults, ages 18-65 with moderate to severe low back pain (LBP). The study went on for 13 months, and participants were randomized to either supervised aquatic therapy or traditional physical therapy in twice weekly sessions for 12 weeks.
After 1 year, mean scores on a 24-point disability scale improved by about 4 points more among participants in the aquatic exercise group then among those in the traditional physical therapy group, which is a meaningful difference. The aquatic exercise group also had improvement on the pain scale vs the traditional exercise group. Significant improvements in other measures of functioning and sleep also favored the aquatic participants.
Aquatic Therapy, or hydrotherapy as it is otherwise known has been used as an alternative therapy for those with chronic pain, or recovering from an injury or surgery. The natural buoyancy of water helps to reduce weight and eases stress on joints, even those in the spine. It does offer some resistance which can increase strength without muscle fatigue. It can reduce muscular and neurological pain and improve flexibility and range of motion. Plus it can be soothing and comfortable when done in a rehab setting by a physical therapist trained in hydrotherapy.
A study in 2019 sited in Physical Therapy stated that “aquatic exercise produced sufficient muscle activation, intensity and exertion.” It also noted reduction of pain vs land exercises. Several other studies have praised its benefits, including its positive effects in those with spinal stenosis, which is a neurological condition affecting the lower back and neck.
Speak to your practitioner and physical therapist about whether this treatment is right for you. This may be an effective option for managing this very common and difficult to treat condition.
References: Thomm, M. Get in the Water: Hydrotherapy for Pain and Movement. Practical Pain Management 11/11/2021.
Peng M-S et al. Efficacy of therapeutic aquatic exercise vs physical therapy modalities for patients with chronic low back pain; A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Netw Open 2022 Jan 7; 5:e2142069.