Water aerobics for families and children with special needs

Splash! Aquatic therapy is more than just fun

How weightlessness, compression, and water temp provide benefits
By Julie Foss, DPT

What child doesn’t love the water? When I was a kid, I loved nothing more than going to the pool and spending hours swimming and splashing. As an adult, I still find myself spending many hours each day in the pool. While I do have fun, now the focus is providing aquatic therapy. The qualities and properties of water create a unique environment that allows kids to play and learn in ways that they cannot in a land-based therapy session. Benefits of aquatic therapy Aquatic therapy has been shown to increase range of motion and sensory input. It decreases tone, edema, pain, and weight bearing on joints. The most important benefit is that it’s fun! The feeling of weightlessness created by the buoyancy of water allows for skills and movements that are unachievable on land. Buoyancy makes you feel like you are half of your body weight at waist depth. The more submerged you are, the less you weigh. A child that is working on standing independently may not be able to hold his or her body up on land, but in waist deep water, the child only has to hold up 50 percent his or her body weight. The result: success in standing independently. Research has shown that in time the skills learned in aquatic therapy transfer to land-based therapy. Have you ever tried to run through water and felt like you were moving in slow motion? That is water’s resistance at work.

Although buoyancy makes some tasks easier, water’s resistance makes the movement more difficult. This allows any active movement in the water to become a strengthening exercise. Water’s resistance decreases the speed of movement allowing us time to focus on the quality of the movements. A child demonstrating a shuffled gait may not be able to clear their toes while walking on land and could benefit from aquatic therapy. In the water, the movement slows down, allowing the child to focus on bending knees and hips enough to clear toes instead of tripping. With practice, re-teaching the body these movements can carry over to everyday life. ͞Why is it so hot in here?͟ That’s a question parents often ask me. The benefits of aquatic therapy benefits are optimized when water temperature is between 89 and 92 degrees. Warm water allows for increased range of motion, decreased tone, and decreased pain. But heat is not the only relaxing quality of the pool. Hydrostatic pressure occurs in the water due to the force of gravity exerting downward, thus increasing the weight of water onto the body. This compression feels a bit like getting a big hug. It is most beneficial for children with visual impairments or sensory processing disorders.

For visually impaired children, water compression provides a sense of body awareness and feedback, allowing them to have a greater understanding of how they are moving their body. For those with sensory processing disorders, the water provides both tactile and proprioceptive input. Depending on the child’s needs, aquatic therapy can help regulate the body’s sensory needs. Beyond therapy–water sports As a physical therapist, I am often asked about kids with disabilities participating in sports. Swimming is one of the first sports that comes to mind. Depending on the child’s needs, the pool can provide accommodations that other sports do not. This includes the safety of not falling for children with balance deficits, sensory input for children with sensory processing disorders, and decreased tone for children with cerebral palsy or other tone disorders. I have seen many children with a variety of diagnoses learn to swim competitively, while also building confidence. Aquatic therapy can give children the freedom and support to try skills they have not been able to achieve before. Gaining confidence, independence, and having fun is our ultimate goals with any therapy. Depending on your child’s needs, aquatic therapy could give them the support they need to progress to their next goal.

[Author bio] Julie Foss is a Doctor of Physical Therapy for Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center. Julie is a Kansas City native who attended Rockhurst University for her doctorate degree. Julie is a Certified Infant Massage Instructor and has extensive training in aquatic therapy. Since 1947, Children’s TLC has offered a variety of therapeutic and educational services for young children with developmental delays or disabilities, and those who are medically fragile. Contact Children’s TLC at 816-756-0780 or childrenstlc.org

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