Chronic PainHow Aquatic Therapy Can Bypass Psychological Barriers to Recovery

How Aquatic Therapy Can Bypass Psychological Barriers to Recovery

When you’ve experienced a traumatic injury, physical pain isn’t the only issue. Injuries and illnesses create adverse psychological effects as well. Some patients slide into depression due to the whirlwind of emotions they experience following an accident.

Aquatic exercise (also known as water therapy or pool therapy) helps patients move past psychological barriers hindering their recovery. Because it often proves less painful than many other forms of physical therapy, it can help a patient overcome their fear. So what does that process look like—and where does it begin?

Understanding the Emotions of Injured Patients

aquatic exercise

Maybe you’ve been struck by a car, or perhaps you’ve received a diagnosis of a chronic health condition. Regardless of the source of your physical trauma, what happens to your body impacts your mental health.

You may experience some or all of the following emotions.

  • Fear: When you get hurt, your brain fights to prevent a similar injury from happening again. The mechanism works similarly to the way PTSD patients react to trauma. When you encounter certain stimuli that remind you of the traumatic event, your adrenal glands release additional cortisol. This hormone causes the fight-or-flight instinct. Problems arise when the stimuli would otherwise benefit your recovery. For example, if you were struck by a car while riding your bike, you may develop a fear of riding bikes.
  • Powerlessness: Even if you eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly, illness or injury can still strike. When this happens, you lose confidence in your ability to control the world around you. You develop a fatalistic attitude, thinking you may as well engage in negative behaviors if doing the right thing proves ineffective. This mindset prevents you from engaging in activities that could hasten recovery.
  • Hopelessness: The absence of hope feels like the absence of life. When you’re in the thick of recovery, it can feel like you’ll never regain your former abilities, especially if you received a diagnosis of chronic illness or suffered permanent debilitation. It’s essential to remember that even if you don’t ever regain your former physical state completely, you can always improve.

Benefits of Aquatic Therapy for Patients with Fear Avoidance

Aquatic therapy helps people struggling with the emotion of fear breakthrough this recovery plateau. When you submerge, you are in an aquatic environment, and the liquid
supports 80% of your body weight. This decreases pain by easing pressure on your spine and muscles. Working out in the water also minimizes the risk of falls that could cause re-injury.

Even if you have a chronic disease, aquatic workouts provide the health benefits of exercise and relieve pain. For example, many patients with rheumatoid arthritis find aquatic workouts help alleviate the pain of this condition. These workouts are also helpful for ailments like chronic back pain.

How Aquatic Therapy Helps with Depression

When you suffer from depression—either due to hormonal imbalances or external factors like an injury—the area of your brain responsible for mood grows smaller. Exercise
helps your brain build new neurons, enlarging your hippocampus and alleviating symptoms of depression.

Some research indicates taking regular exercise proves as effective as antidepressant medications in some cases. That proves especially true for injured patients struggling with feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Aquatic exercise restores your faith in your ability to make a meaningful, positive change in your life and gives you hope you can continue to improve.

How Aquatic Therapy Restores Function and Confidence

aquatic therapy

If you’ve broken a bone, the muscles surrounding your injured limb atrophy while your bones mend in a cast. Exercise helps restore function, rebuilding muscle fibers and restoring your strength.

Many patients who suffer falls avoid exercise out of fear of it happening again. But because aquatic therapy minimizes the risk of falls, people feel more secure pushing beyond their comfort zone—a necessary step for genuine improvement. Then, as people regain their strength, they find it easier to return to normal activities with their newly restored confidence.

Suggested Activities for the Recovery Period

Whether you’re working with an assigned physical therapist or managing recovery independently, the following activities can speed your healing.

  • Swim: Unless your physician advises against it, join a local YMCA or fitness facility with a pool and go for a swim. Swimming provides a total-body workout that improves both cardiovascular ability and range of motion.
  • Take an aquacise class: Guided aquatic fitness programs can get your heart pumping and tone your muscles. Arrive early for class to speak with the instructor about modifications to avoid exacerbating any injuries.
  • Walk in the pool: Walking on land can seem scary when you’re injured. However, you can’t fall when you’re in the water. Plus, the resistance of the water makes your muscles work harder.

Aquatic Therapy Speeds Healing and Improves Mental Health

Aquatic therapy helps you break through psychological factors keeping you on the sidelines too long. It also enables you to rebuild your strength and confidence in your abilities.

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