Pool Exercises for Back Pain - How they Work Their Magic

Two women power walk in the water.
Warm up and cool down your water therapy session with walking. Dennis O'Clair/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Pool Exercises for Back Pain - How they Work their Magic

Water has some very special properties that for some people with back pain yields great results in terms relief. The beauty of being in water is that it allows you to do more than you would on land - because it reduces or eliminates constraints gravity imposes on your moving body.

Water exercise is done in shallow, mid-deep and deep water, depending upon your level of conditioning and the goals of your workout.

 When you work out in deep water, you generally wear a flotation device like a belt that helps keep you up.  Other flotation devices commonly used include noodles and dumbbells. Though not apparel, these items can still help you float rather than sink.

If you're a beginner, or it takes you a long time to warm up (like me), you might consider staying in shallow water until you're comfortable. And in this case, wearing a  flotation belt may help relieve joint pounding.  (Yes, some pounding does occur in the shallow end of the pool.)

Muscle Strengthening

Pool exercise can strengthen back, ab and hip muscles, all key for a healthy spine. The density of water as a surrounding medium provides resistance to your movements.  In this way, pool exercise functions similarly to weight training in that they make for stronger muscles.

Increasing Joint Range of Motion

Working out in water is often a favorite of people who have arthritis.

 

Why?

Because the buoyancy of the water helps take the load off your joints, and this, in turn, may help you take key body parts more fully through their range of motion. Even so, if you've been in a lot of pain, or have had pain for a long time, you may be best served by beginning gently and slowly before working up to capacity.

Core Stabilization Exercise

The pool is a great place to challenge your core. Water walking, bicycling, kicks and ab exercises are among the most common moves. In general, trunk stabilization is accomplished by first establishing a neutral spine, and then moving legs and arms while the spine stays where it is. (Any water depth can be appropriate for this.) . Aquatic equipment such as the flotation belt and the dumbbells can support you as you access to your core muscles.

Another way to develop core strength in the water is by challenging your balance. You can position yourself on certain pieces of aquatic equipment such as noodles or kickboards and try to stay there. You can try to sit, or kneel, or even stand. Balance exercises in the water will probably work all of your core and trunk muscles.

Motivation

Many people, myself included, find that working out in water is fun, and even kind of a stress-buster. Plus, as the buoyancy of water takes a load off your joints, you may find you have less post-exercise pain.

Maybe these features will motivate you to return to the pool more often and to stay longer. This will likely be good for your back!

Stay Fit While Your Heal Your Back Injury

Are you an active person with a back injury?  And has your doctor or physical therapist advised you to avoid weight bearing and/or high impact exercise until it heals? If so, you may be fretting over lost time at the gym. But by substituting your normal routine with pool workouts, you may be able minimize loss of fitness due to the reduced activity without aggravating your back.

Decreased Pain

Croatian researchers studied middle aged chronic low back patients who did not have accompanying leg pain (sciatica) to find out whether water or land based exercises was more successful in relieving pain. They found that both types of exercise did the job nicely and also helped decrease physical disability.  The researchers call pool exercises for back pain "safe, well-tolerated and an enjoyable form of exercise."  They recommend a program for "particularly" disabled patients in the beginning of their therapy course to get them introduced to training.

Sources:
Konlian, C., Aquatic therapy: making a wave in the treatment of low back injuries. Orthop Nurs. 1999 Jan-Feb 18(1)
Kisner, C., & Colby, L.A. (2002). Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques.Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.

Tomislave, N., et. al. Comparison of the Effects of Land-Based and Water-Based Therapeutic Exercises on the Range of Motion and Physical Disability in Patients with Chronic Low-Back Pain: Single-Blinded Randomized Study. Acta Clin Croat 2013; 52:321-327

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