Is Aquatic Therapy for Cerebral Palsy Better Than Traditional Physical Therapy?

aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy

Wondering what the benefits of aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy are?

What sets aquatic therapy apart from traditional physical therapy is that water has certain properties that just can’t be duplicated on land.

This article will explain what aquatic therapy is and why it can be an effective form of rehabilitation for people with cerebral palsy.

Let’s start!

What is Aquatic Therapy for Cerebral Palsy?

Aquatic therapy is a type of physical therapy that takes place in a pool.

Because all exercises are guided by a physical therapist, it’s very safe (even for children with motor impairments).

Gravity and bodyweight add a lot of pressure to the joints, which affects movement.

When submerged in water, the pressure of gravity is reduced, which makes us feel much lighter. The deeper the water, the less weight you bear.

This allows moving in water to be much easier than moving on land.

Types of Aquatic Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

using floating barbells aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy

Aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy can involve a lot of different water-based exercises like:

  • Walking in shallow/deep water
  • Aquatic yoga
  • Swimming
  • Floating
  • Motion exercises
  • Balance exercises
  • Games
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Stretching

Because every case of cerebral palsy is going to be a little bit different, the aquatic techniques used will vary based on your individual needs.

Floatation devices (vests, barbells, resistance bands, noodles, boards) are used to help keep patients’ heads out of the water. They ensure extra safety so that CP patients can focus on their movements.

Benefits of Aquatic Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

Common physical outcomes of aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy include improved:

  • Gait
  • Gross motor function
  • Joint range of motion
  • Cardiovascular endurance
  • Posture
  • Balance
  • Spasticity

Aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy also has some mental benefits!

When your child sees themselves moving in a way that they’ve never been able to move before, it’s going to be a big confidence boost.

This will motivate them to move around more and perform more repetitions.

Healing Properties of Water

benefits of pool therapy for cerebral palsy

There are 3 major properties of water that make it ideal for people with motor impairments.

1. Buoyancy

Ever noticed how light you feel underwater? That’s due to the buoyant force of water.

Buoyancy decreases the effect of gravity and keeps you afloat.

It relieves pressure off your joints, which makes it easier to move around.

2. Viscosity

Viscosity is how much resistance a fluid has. For example, water is less viscous than honey.

Viscosity is what makes it so difficult to walk quickly underwater. There’s much more resistance when walking in water than walking on land.

So what’s so beneficial about viscosity?

It helps develop strength because you have to push against the added resistance of water.

3. Hydrostatic Pressure

Hydrostatic pressure is the pressure of water on your body from all different directions.

It helps decrease swelling and improve blood flow, which can relieve pain so that you can move more.

Bonus: Heat

Sometimes, a heated pool will be used for aquatic therapy.

Heat helps increase the elasticity of soft tissue, relaxes the muscles, and reduces pain.

How Aquatic Therapy for Cerebral Palsy Works

The point of aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy is to develop your strength, range of motion, and endurance so that the skills can translate out of water.

Dr. Karen Pape suggests in The Boy Who Could Run But Not Walk that motor impairments after a certain age are often just bad habits.

Cerebral palsy does not get worse over time, so by activating neuroplasticity through lots of repetition, the brain can rewire itself.

The best way to replace a habit is to introduce a new, challenging task.

Being submerged in water adds a completely new challenge to walking, so it’s going to fire a whole new set of neural pathways in the brain than walking on land.

The more you repeat the action, the stronger the neural pathways become.

Especially for kids, the pool is fun and aquatic therapy won’t feel so much like exercise.

Should You Try Aquatic Therapy for Cerebral Palsy?

swimming activites for kids with cerebral palsy

Aquatic therapy for cerebral palsy is a great and popular alternative to traditional physical therapy.

The change of environment helps keeps kids engaged and performing the repetitions they need.

Being in water allows for easier movements, strength building, and improved circulation.

Although parents may be a little uneasy about letting their children with cerebral palsy into the pool, they can be assured that their children will always be supervised by a physical therapist.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand how aquatic therapy can improve motor function in cerebral palsy patients. Good luck!