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Osteoarthritis is joint inflammation that results from cartilage degeneration. Osteoarthritis is the second most frequent type of arthritis.

Aquatic therapy provides a wide variety of exercise opportunities for individuals with osteoarthritis. Individuals with osteoarthritis can benefit from swimming, water walking, deep water running, aqua-aerobics programs, strengthening programs, and flexibility programs. The water also offers a place where physical or occupational therapy programs can be utilized for individuals needing rehabilitation with joint replacement or surgery.

The warm water environment has properties that can be utilized to develop balance, coordination, strength, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance in individuals. The water has many properties that make movement more enjoyable for the individual with osteoarthritis. The water has a buoyant force that takes the pressure off of stiff and painful joints while providing enough resistance to work muscles and burn calories.

The water offers the following benefits to individuals with osteoarthritis:

  • Pain Reduction
    • The buoyant force of water supports the weight of the individual which reduces the stress on the joints while providing a safe place to exercise. Water can also alleviate swelling (edema)  because of constant water pressure on the body.
  • Improved Strength
    • Exercise in the water can strengthen the muscles that support the joint. The muscles being strengthened can help protect joints from further damage and can reduce the pain of osteoarthritis.
  • Improved Flexibility or Range of Motion
    • The water can provide an environment for complete movement through the joint that is much different and less painful than on land. The more flexible the joints are, the easier it is to move about them without pain. Improving flexibility can also prevent the joint from "freezing" up and prevent the development of contractions.
  • Improved Mental and Emotional Feeling
    • Exercise in the water can be socially rewarding with its numerous interactions. Water exercise is also extremely motivating in that the person with osteoarthritis can actually do and move, as they want, with decreased pain. The individual who has severe osteoarthritis may experience a lessening of pain but seldom does the pain ever completely go away. The feelings of depression that often come with progressively debilitating diseases can also be alleviated for the time that an individual is in the water. Depression may be eliminated altogether as the individual has successful movement experiences.
  • Increased Energy
    • Exercise in water can increase an individual's energy level.

Exercising in the water is a fun, safe and low cost way for the individual with osteoarthritis to get needed exercise. It requires little or no preparation time. Some people warm up their muscles and joints before getting into the water by taking a warm shower. There are not too many equipment needs.

Items that an individual may want before getting into the pool include:

  • swim cap (for keeping hair dry and away from face)
  • goggles (to keep water out of eyes)
  • flippers (for a good lower body workout while swimming laps)
  • aqua socks (to protect feet from the bottom of the pool)
  • hand paddles (to add more resistance to get a great arm workout)
  • kick boards

Entry into and exiting from the pool can be a challenging task. The individual can use the pool stairs if the stairs are built in a progressively declining fashion or the pool ramp. The individual should hold a railing or a partner's hand for balance or support.  For individuals with limited mobility, a hydraulic (motorized) lift for getting into and out of the water can be utilized.

The pool deck should be dry and clear of debris to prevent falls and slips.
The swimmer should be careful to avoid overheating or chilling of the body. If either occurs, the individual should leave the pool area.

This page was created by Julie Fowler,
Graduate Student in Education at Texas Woman's University,
as part of requirements for
"Aquatics for Special Populations",Huettig, Summer, 1999.

page last updated 1/3/2017 1:00 PM