A wet workout

Aquatic therapy is gaining more converts for rehab and training

By: Chris Anderson

The Greek physician Hippocrates is often called the "father of medicine,"and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine that the medical philosopher read his Greek Mythology, particularly the stories of Neptune and Poseidon, Gods of the sea.

Which possibly helped him to invent one of the first forms of aquatic therapy.

Traces of aquatic therapy date back to 400 B.C., and include Hippocrates' use of temperature contrasting baths to heal joint and muscle ailments and the Roman Empire's system of rheumatic diseases--a painful condition of the joints.

Through more than 2,000 years have past since the first noted aquatic therapy took place, the practice is still very much alive and has now evolved from experimentation and healing, to a significant component in today's state-of-the-art athletic training.

The modern maturing elements of physical therapy and exercise have branched out from the dry land of a training facility to the depths of therapeutic and temperature controlled pools. Water has opened the doors to various forms of curative care and exercise science. Aquatic therapy is now considered one of the best ways to start the road of recovery from injury. It's also become a good way to fine-tune athletic cross-training.

What is aquatic therapy? In it;s simplest definition, aquatic therapy is the use of water as a therapeutic instrument for people to exercise instrument for people to exercise. There is some historical data that traces what was called hydrotherapy, "hydro" the Greek term for water and "therapy" meaning healing, back to ancient Greek and Roman times.

Aquatic therapy gained medical acceptance and popularity in North America in the 20th Century as it was introduced as a means of exercise for people who had polio.

Today, aquatics is widely prescribed to speed the recovery process of individuals recuperating from surgery or a significant injury.

"If you have an individual who's coming back from a surgery, getting them into the water can be imperative," says Mena Ricci P.T., aquatic specialist with the Midwest Therapy Center in Elk Grove Village. "You can vary the amount of weight bearing working the joints depending upon the depth of water. So you would be able to start a jogging or training program a lot sooner than you would on land. In that sense it helps the individual to rehabilitate and progress through therapy quicker because of the weightlessness. And they then can start the more advanced activities sooner than they would on land."

A common exercise in aquatic therapy is running in water using a buoyancy belt that goes around the waist while working in deep water. Five-pound resistant cuffs--similar to buoys--are often used as the they can be attached to the individuals ankles or wrists depending upon the injury.

One of the many positives about aquatics is that you don't have to be able to swim to reap its benefits. The individual is still improving their muscular and cardiovascular fitness, but it in a different environment.

The weightlessness of water provides an excellent environment for patients to regain muscle tone and the mechanics of everyday movements--such as walking and running--much more quickly than they would on land. The therapy and training practiced in various depths of water can make physical performance much more dynamic and swifter than on dry land.

"Someone who has had a torn ACL repaired can do jumping-type motions in a position where thy are laying on their back using the pool wall as a springboard and a buoyancy belt to keep them a float," says Chris Arce, P.T., with Midwest Therapy Center. "This is practiced so the individual doesn't lose the dynamic aspect of their muscle contraction. If doesn't take the place of land therapy. Our goals are still to get back on the land to do these things on land, but this makes an individual's recovery time quicker."

As the medical world has caught on to the ever-increasing advantages of aquatics, so has the sporting and fitness world. Aquatics is now entering another evolution as it's becoming more of a focal point in the cross-training of amateur and professional athletes.

"There has been a tremendous evolution in aquatic therapy," says Cynthia Janulaitis, M.S., P.T., assistant director of physical therapy at UIC Medical Center. "Aquatic therapy has evolved in the sense that we now have the scientific literature and excellent research that backs up the usefulness and the effectiveness of water as a medium to achieve many goals. One, improving muscle strength and function.

"We now have seen water evolve not just for people with physical disabilities or recovering from injuries, but being used to cross-train athletes. It's no longer just therapeutic" she says.

Mena Ricci agrees: "Aquatics is definitely going to grow with physical therapists, but it's also going to continue to grow with other specialties as well. I know that coaches are beginning to see how beneficial it can be to their athletes in all sports, professional and amateur. It is an excellent way for an athlete to cross-train so that the athlete doesn't begin to develop an over-use injury."

What athletes and coaches have discovered is that water provides a tremendous amount of resistance. It's also a highly prescribed alternative to free weights or weight machines. Aquatics is much more versatile, providing both an aerobic effect and a resistive force to improve muscle endurance and muscle strength.

That knowledge has produced an increase in aquatic fitness equipment. Water aerobics is no longer exclusively for the elderly as technology has created the means for a extensive under-water workout.

"More equipment is being developed for use in the water, designed with a more versatile range of buoyancy and resistance," Jamulaitis says. " The biggest growth of aquatics isn't necessary from therapeutics, it's from training and fitness."

"Athletes are now the biggest group using aquatic fitness," says Stephanie Vaughan, president of Splash!, which manufactured aquatic products. "Most athletes have gone in the water to get stronger ankles, knees and other joints because they have found they have less injuries when they enter the water after a game--weather it's ice hockey, tennis, soccer, basketball or whatever it might be."

"Aquatic therapy has been used for professional hockey players, as well as other pro athletes, if they need a low impact exercise initiation with the acute stages of a post-injury," says Pete Twist, an NHL strength and conditioning coach. "Aquatic definitely has a place for lead athletes and the general population. I think aquatic training for many people especially in the general population, is a great low-impact aerobic workout that incorporates a small degree of strength and large degree of dynamic flexibility as it's an excellent workout option."

Though aquatics has been around for centuries, the extensive therapy and conditioning is still in its infancy. As technology and research progresses so will the advantages of aquatics on patients, athletes and the health conscious.

As of yet there are no licensed aquatic therapist. However, come this fall the Aquatic Therapy Rehabilitation Institute in Chassells, Mich., will begin the well-overdue task of licensing aquatic therapists in years to come, you can expect to be seeing a lot more of aquatic therapy, in both rehabilitation and training.

Windy City Sports 1998

Chris Anderson is a freelance writer in Chicago

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