Aquatic therapy for traumatic brain injury patients is an effective way to allow patients more freedom of movement.
In today’s article, we’re looking at the many benefits aquatic therapy offers that make it the ideal treatment for TBI patients.
Let’s dive in!
What is Aquatic Therapy for Traumatic Brain Injury Patients?
Aquatic therapy (also known as water therapy) is a form of physical therapy that takes place in a heated pool.
During a water therapy session, a therapist works one-on-one with the patient while the patient is floating or standing in water.
It is used to treat a variety of conditions, including brain injury.
Water therapy doesn’t teach you how to swim. Rather, the goal of aquatic therapy is to help people regain control of their muscle movement. Ultimately, the patient will learn how to transfer the skills they gained in the pool onto dry land.
Since water therapy doesn’t involve any swimming, anyone can try it. Even people who do not know how to swim.
Advantages of Aquatic Therapy over Traditional Physical Therapy
Water therapy offers a number of therapeutic benefits for brain injujry patients that therapy in a gym can’t provide as easily. One such advantage is buoyancy.
Buoyancy is the upward thrust of water pushing against an object. It’s what lets your body float in a pool.
Since this force acts in the opposite direction of gravity, it’s able to reduce a person’s weight by nearly 80 percent! This allows for greater ease of movement.
At the same time, water has a higher viscosity than air does, which means it offers more resistance to muscles. This increases muscle strength and endurance.
That means that water therapy simultaneously allows TBI patients to experience more freedom in their body movement, and more challenge to their muscles. That’s a combination difficult to find in other therapies.
Finally, since aquatic therapy takes place in a heated pool (usually about 92 degrees Fahrenheit), the warm water relaxes the muscles and increases blood circulation, which can help reduce spasticity after TBI.
Aquatic Therapy Methods and Techniques
There are many techniques an aquatic therapist might use, depending on the TBI patient’s needs. Here are some of the most popular ones.
- Ai Chi. Ai Chi borrows concepts from Tai Chi, Shiatsu, and Qigong to help the patient decrease stress and joint tension. Patients perform it standing in shoulder-deep water and practice deep breathing and slow, broad movements.
- Bad Ragaz Ring Method. This technique uses flotation rings on a person’s neck, pelvis, and ankles to keep them floating on their backs. While lying on their back, the patient will perform different movements either passively or actively. The goal is to decrease spasticity and increase range of motion.
- Burdenko Method. This method focuses on improving gait and balance by integrating land and water therapy. It is done while the patient is standing up.
- Unpredictable Command Technique (UCT). The goal of UCT is to challenge the patient until they can perform two or more movements at once. The therapist will give the patient random tasks in quick succession, which not only improves muscle coordination but also boosts focus and mental flexibility. This makes it a great option for brain injury patients.
Besides these methods, you can also try things like water yoga or water pilates. These give you the same benefits that the land exercises do, but the water adds a little more resistance.
Benefits of Aquatic Therapy for Traumatic Brain Injury Patients
The following are some of the best benefits aquatic therapy can provide to brain injury patients.
1. One-on-One Instruction
Many water therapy sessions are private, which means the person receives an hour of therapy with minimal distractions.
This is helpful for brain injury patients who struggle to pay attention. It allows you to focus on the movement you need to make, which will help you regain control of your muscles easier.
2. Decreases Pain and Swelling
Water pressure forces blood from the legs into the chest, which improves overall circulation. This helps relieve pain and stiffness from swelling in your legs.
In addition, when immersed in warm water, gravity no longer presses on your joints. This makes it easier to move and practice aerobic exercise. Since aerobic exercise releases endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers, aquatic therapy can be an ideal pain management solution for brain injury patients.
3. Improves Functional Range of Motion
Because of the water’s buoyancy, you can have more freedom than you otherwise would.
This freedom lets you practice how your limbs are supposed to move, which will improve your functional range of motion.
With the help of a therapist, you can practice moving your legs and arms in the proper manner for walking, and lessen your spasticity while you’re at it.
4. Improves Balance Skills
The pressure of the water, while making you feel lighter, also pushes on your core from all angles, which helps keep your body a little more stabilized than it would be on land.
At the same time, the waves from the pool challenge your trunk muscles and force you to steady yourself. This can help you improve your balancing and walking skills.
Since water also prevents falling injuries, aquatic therapy is ideal for brain injury patients who aren’t confident enough to walk on land. It gives them a safe place where they can attempt different balancing exercises without fear of hurting themselves.
5. Boosts Confidence
A person’s attitude can greatly affect their recovery progress.
If the patient does not see any noticeable improvement in their symptoms, it becomes easy to lose motivation to continue with therapy.
This can lead to a vicious, downward spiral where the person cuts back on therapy because they see no benefits, then starts losing function because they are not exercising, which only discourages them more, etc.
Fortunately, aquatic therapy can prevent this because it offers patients more freedom, and it produces results much faster. More results give people the confidence boost they need to keep up with their therapy and continue making progress.
Aquatic Therapy Safety Concerns
Aquatic therapy is mostly safe, but there are still precautions you should take before trying it.
Anyone with the following health problems should avoid water therapy:
- Uncontrolled epilepsy
- Absence of cough reflex or inability to close mouth
- Severe cognitive deficits
- Unstable blood pressure
In addition, if you suffered a brain hemorrhage, wait at least three weeks before getting into a pool. This is done to avoid the risk of another hemorrhage.
Should You Try Aquatic Therapy for Traumatic Brain Injury?
If you’ve been struggling with traditional therapy and not seeing as many results as you’d like, consider giving aquatic therapy a try.
It’s especially helpful for patients with brain injury paralysis who can’t move at all. The water’s buoyancy might just give you the assistance you need to start moving.
Even if you can only move a little at first, that small movement is enough to activate neuroplasticity. This will help reestablish your brain’s connection to your muscles and increase function.
Eventually, with enough practice, you can build up your skills in the water until you can transition back to land therapy and start making even more progress in your brain injury recovery journey.