Consider trying aquatic interventions to soothe the pain of fibromyalgia, induce relaxation, and improve sleep.
If you suffer from pain, stress, or insomnia resulting from fibromyalgia, you may get relief by exploring a water-centered approach: at a hot spring, therapy center, or even in your own home. It might be as simple as tossing Epsom salts in your tub and having a relaxing soak, doing gentle range of motion exercises after a warm bath or shower, or engaging in something more structured — sessions with a specially trained therapist.
Mineral baths, thalassotherapy (involving the use of seawater), balneotherapy (bathing in hot springs or thermal waters), and jetted whirlpool baths encourage relaxation, which can temporarily ease pain, says Eileen Schweers Ray, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association’s Academy of Aquatic Physical Therapy in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Along with using water to provide heating or cooling of the treated areas, some of these treatments involve the application of seaweed, mud, salt, or other minerals to achieve desired effects.”
The Benefits of Moving Around in Water
While merely passively soaking in water has therapeutic value, exercising in water brings additional rewards. Marcy O’Koon, the senior director of consumer health for the Arthritis Foundation in Atlanta, notes that aquatic exercise is perfect for both cardio and strengthening workouts. “Exercise, in general, provides a number of benefits for people with fibromyalgia, including pain reduction, increased energy, and better sleep,” says O’Koon, “but the advantage of exercising in water versus on land is that the buoyancy of the water supports joints and the body overall, eliminating the impact of land-based moves.”
RELATED: Drug-Free Ways to Treat Fibromyalgia
Aquatic exercise and aquatic physical therapy, Ray explains, rely on the properties of water — buoyancy, flow, and drag — to enhance movement or provide resistance. “Both interventions make use of a beneficial property of what’s known as hydrostatic pressure, a compressive force applied to the body by the water. It helps decrease blood pooling and edema (swelling) in the extremities and increases circulation. Thermal effects of warm water are also effective in increasing blood flow, promoting relaxation, and decreasing stiffness.” Hydrostatic pressure, she says, helps reduce and prevent swelling of extremities, while buoyancy decreases weight bearing on painful joints. “And water decreases the pull of gravity on the body, so that a person may recover from loss of balance without suffering an injury from a fall. This allows them to try more challenging activities such as running and jumping.”MOST HELPFUL
The Difference Between Aquatic Physical Therapy and Water-Based Exercise
Aquatic exercise, says Ray, refers to any movement-based activity that’s done in the water, such as water aerobics, lap swimming, or group exercise classes. “For example, the Arthritis Foundation Aquatic Program is designed for people with arthritis and related conditions, but anyone with joint pain and stiffness may benefit from it. It’s administered by the Aquatic Exercise Association, and classes are held at community pools and aquatic centers,” explains Ray.
Aquatic physical therapy, on the other hand, she says, is more specialized and is performed by a licensed physical therapist after individualized assessment. Among the benefits she describes for patients with fibromyalgia — validated by research — are decreased pain, increased range of motion, and improved strength, stamina, and physical performance. “Specific goals are set for each patient, with a plan to progress to functional activities on land,” says Ray.
Among the various types of aquatic physical therapy, Ray notes, are Bad Ragaz, Watsu, Halliwick, AquaStretch, and Ai Chi. Regardless of the type, she adds, the incorporation of movement into the intervention is fundamental. “The motion may be applied by the therapist to help stretch or release affected tissues, or it may be done by the patient in the form of exercises to stretch and strengthen the body and activities to work on functional tasks.” An equally essential component, she says, is patient education. You’ll gain knowledge, she adds, about your diagnosis and insight into your unique experience.
Water Can Lift Your Mood, Too
People typically observe decreased pain and stiffness after water therapy, adds Lori Thein Brody, PT, PhD, a senior clinical specialist at UW Health Clinics in Madison, Wisconsin. “People feel emotionally better, often because these exercises often happen in groups and they experience the social support of an instructor and the other group participants who are experiencing similar symptoms. Fibromyalgia tends to be an ‘invisible’ disease in that there are few outside indicators of the impairments that these individuals experience. Thus, they can become socially isolated and feel like others don’t understand their symptoms.” The group setting, she says, provides some validation.RECOMMENDED
The National Beverage Corporation, the parent company of LaCroix, is facing a lawsuit for labeling products “natural flavored.” Find out what’s really in LaCroix, if seltzer or sparkling water are good or bad for you (and why), and more, in this article.Learn More
According to Dr. Brody, most people enjoy water exercise more than land exercise because of the warmth of the water and the buoyancy. “It’s much easier to move sore or stiff joints and muscles in the water than it is against gravity on land. Often people are unable to assume the positions or postures necessary to exercise some body parts on land, but they are able to do so in the pool due to buoyancy.” But science also confirms the benefits. There are a number of studies, most often involving women because they’re disproportionately affected by the condition, “that demonstrate improvement in function, pain, stiffness, and mental health following water exercise for people with fibromyalgia,” says Brody.
Finding the Right Aquatic Therapist
If you’d like to explore aquatic physical therapy, be sure to find a licensed physical therapist and, says Brody, one who “understands the key issues in chronic pain — central sensitization and how exercise, in some individuals, can increase pain. More is not always better. And they should have a good understanding of the physical properties of water and the physiological response to immersion.”
Look for a therapist in your area on the Move Forward page of the APTA website and filter for aquatic physical therapy, suggests Ray. According to Brody, you can also call local clinics to see if they have a specialist in aquatic physical therapy. And, advises Ray, check with your doctor, because in cases of medical necessity, water therapy may be covered by your health insurance.