Image: Boy and adult man in a swimming pool

Aquatic Therapy: Using Water for Wellness and Independence

Aquatic therapy is the use of water to support or teach a child skills just like they would in “land therapy.” These skills could include learning to have better balance when walking or climbing stairs, making it easier to jump, improving running speed, practicing sitting to standing or perhaps even floating or swimming. The goal is to improve a child’s independence to complete tasks in his or her everyday life – some of which may be more difficult when the child is on land.

Why choose it?

Aquatic therapy is just one type of gross motor therapy that may address:

  • Muscle strengthening
  • Balance and body awareness
  • Lessening pain and easing the strain of stretching tight or spastic muscles
  • Cardiorespiratory endurance
  • Confidence with social interactions and play

Therapists use numerous aids to ensure safety or improve efficiency of activities in the water such as flotation devices, pool noodles, kick-boards, ankle or wrist weights, steps and, of course, toys!

Who can benefit?

Physical and occupational therapists provide aquatic therapy treatment for children of all ages and various diagnoses. Here are some examples of the types of conditions that may benefit from aquatic therapy:

  • Cerebral palsy and other neurological disorders
  • Brachial plexus injuries
  • Post-operative orthopedic conditions
  • Developmental delay
  • Autism
  • Chronic pain
  • Generalized muscle weakness or neuromuscular diseases
  • Sports-related injuries

A child may participate in aquatic therapy treatment just as they would any other therapy treatment, and the frequency, intensity and duration is individually based on the goals of the family and child. It can be used as a supplement to additional therapies, prior to or in transition to land based therapy that is fully weight-bearing or solely as its own intervention. A therapist may also instruct the child and family in activities that can be completed in a pool outside of therapy in a fun, interactive way!

There are certain precautions when completing aquatic therapy, so talk to your child’s physician, physical or occupational therapist about its risks and benefits. To learn more about occupational therapy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, click here.

Danielle Peifer, PT, DPT
Danielle Peifer, PT, DPT is a pediatric, developmental physical therapist at the Nationwide Children's Hospital Outpatient Main campus, as well as in Homecare services. She received her degree as a Doctor of Physical Therapy from Mercer University in Atlanta in May 2013. She is an Ohio native, completing her undergraduate degree as an Exercise Science major at The Ohio State University. She currently works in the outpatient and homecare settings, evaluating and treating children ages 0-18 with a variety of diagnoses.

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