Hydrotherapy Techniques for Retirees
As millions of Americans reach retirement age, they must also face the challenges of aging. Muscle stiffness, weak joints, and heart conditions are not uncommon among the nation’s retirement population.
But getting older does not mean slowing down. In fact, some retirees are discovering new ways to stay fit and healthy while still making the most of their golden years. Particularly, those who adopt hydrotherapy practices find not only relief from the symptoms of aging, but improvement in their mobility, respiratory condition, and cardiac function.
Hydrotherapy is certainly not a new concept. However, its physiological effects had not garnered attention in medical and scientific communities until recently. Though the full potential of aquatic therapy is not known, it currently is used throughout rehabilitative medicine for a number of musculoskeletal and cardiac treatments.
Some retirees have begun using their hot tubs to incorporate hydrotherapy techniques into their self-care regimens. It’s no secret that hot tubs offer stress relief and relaxation. But could they provide preventative and restorative care as well?
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The Fight Against Aging and Immersion Techniques
Getting old is inevitable–feeling old is not. As bodies age, they become susceptible to weakening joints, muscle fatigue, and a host of cardio-respiratory conditions. However, as scientists are learning, regular hydrotherapy and aquatic exercise increase vitality and provide relief from the symptoms of aging. The results of these studies are encouraging, especially for seniors who still enjoy an active lifestyle.
For many retirees, warm water immersion therapy is advantageous because it’s self-regulated, often performed at home in a hot tub or bath. Experts recommend up to 20 minutes per day to achieve the best results. However, caution is advised to not overheat the tub. Ideally, water temperature should be between 92 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit to avoid cardiovascular risks.
Athletic trainers have long used warm water immersion therapy to loosen stiff muscles and relieve aching joints before exercise. Yet, scientists had not known why warm soaks were beneficial until recent decades. Hydrotherapy is centuries old, but didn’t become scientifically credible until Dr. Bruce E. Becker of Washington State University began measuring the physiological responses to various water treatments.
In his studies, Dr. Becker discovered that warm water therapy increases blood flow to the extremities–arms, fingers, feet. With heightened blood flow, your muscles receive more oxygen, allowing them to stretch and move more freely. Over prolonged immersion treatments, subjects increased their blood flow during exercise by as much as 20% overall.
Soaking does not need to be just a passive activity either. In fact, engaging in gentle stretching or massaging can increase joint pain relief and flexibility. For those suffering lower back problems, place a tennis ball between the lumbar and the seatback and gently roll over tense areas.
Here are some simple exercises you can try in a hot tub at home or at the gym to help improve your mobility and flexibility:
- Shoulder rolls…While soaking, gently rotate your shoulders in one direction several times, then switch directions. Repeat in both directions five times.
- Leg extensions…While sitting in the corner of your hot tub, plant both hands firmly on the edge of your seat for balance and extend both legs out in front of you. Spread your legs apart and bring them together again while pointing and flexing your toes. Repeat for about two sets of 25, or as many times as you’re comfortable with.
- Knee flexion…While sitting, bend the knee, bring it toward your chest and extend. Once flexibility improves, with adequate balance you can also try the exercise while standing.
Osteoarthritis affects millions of seniors across the country. In some of the most severe cases, mobility and exercise are all but impossible, resulting in additional pain and stiffness. However, recent studies have revealed significant reductions in pain and increases in mobility in patients suffering from severe osteoarthritis after prolonged hydrotherapy sessions.
Scientists attribute improvements to knee and hip joint pain to stronger quad muscles. Whereas before patients were unable to exercise on land, hydrotherapy provided a conducive environment for strength building. Buoyancy reduces stress on the joints, facilitating movement. Meanwhile, the water provides enough resistance to stimulate muscle growth. Even gentle stretches in warm water offer benefits to those who would otherwise be unable to exercise.
The rehabilitative benefits of hydrotherapy do not end once the soak is over. With persistent treatment, patients also saw sustained mobility improvement. As the quad muscles strengthen, they reduce stress on the joints, increasing flexibility and moderating pain.
There are a number of simple exercises you can do to improve mobility and pain management while soaking in the hot tub. With your muscles relaxed, these exercises become less taxing on the joints, making movement easier. Here are some recommended by Hot Tub Yoga you can try at home both in and out of the water:
- Knuckle bends…Bend the knuckles on both hands toward your palms then extend again. Repeat 10 times or as many times as you’re comfortable with.
- Finger pulls…Extend your fingers and pull the tips of each one until you feel a stretch in the palm side of your finger. Be careful not to over-extend to the point of pain or injury.
- Thumb stretches…Stretch your thumb across your palm to the base of your pinky, if possible. Repeat several times.
- Interlaced stretches…To stretch the wrist, interlock your fingers and turn your palms outward. Extend your arms until they’re straight, if possible, and hold.
- Figure-eight rotation…With your fingers interlocked, bring your palms and forearms together and gently rotate your wrists from side to side in a figure-eight. Repeat several times and reverse direction.
Heart Failure Recovery
Hydrotherapy is becoming a surprising treatment for those recovering from or at risk for heart failure. Once thought to be risky to those suffering from heart conditions, warm water therapy is now being considered as a rehabilitation treatment.
In a 2009 case report, researchers espoused the benefits of hydrotherapy in late stage heart disease as a means to facilitate exercise and blood flow regulation. Scientists discovered that, when immersed in warm water, patients experienced a decrease in heart rate and greater stroke volume. In other words, they developed better blood flow with fewer heart beats. Given the heart rate and blood flow improvements, patients were able to safely engage in more rigorous activity, both in and out of the water.
Combined with the cardiovascular benefits of warm water, you can also attempt (per doctor’s recommendation) to engage in heart-strengthening exercises, such as aerobics. Simple, low-impact aerobics in the hot tub can improve blood flow and exercise the heart. During your next soak, you can try the following exercises:
- Side leg extensions
- Crunches or jack-knifes
- Underwater bicycle kicks
Knee and hip replacements are extensive surgeries that result in a long, slow rehabilitation period. Even seniors who participate in an active lifestyle struggle to recover full mobility after surgery. Increasingly, physical therapists are introducing different types of hydrotherapy into rehab treatment early on in the process to reduce stress and facilitate movement in the injured area.
In a 2011 study, researchers monitored a group of knee surgery patients 12 months after undergoing a 12-week aquatic therapy treatment. They measured the difference in mobility and strength in the affected knee a year after treatment. The results suggest that the key to better mobility and flexibility after surgery is sustained hydrotherapy, beyond the weeks and months of post-op rehabilitation. Additionally, another 2011 study suggests that hydrotherapy treatments can begin as early as six days after the procedure.
If you’ve recently had or plan to have total knee or hip replacement surgery, discuss a warm water regimen with your doctor. Your physical therapist can show you exercises that are safe and beneficial for your new knee or hip, even long after the surgery, including walking and stretching exercises.
Additional Hydrotherapy Techniques
Hydrotherapy has come to encompass many different techniques and methodologies that it can be difficult to define. Generally, it refers to a form of exercise or stretching in warm–though sometimes cold as well–water. That being said, here are some of the less known hydrotherapy techniques that have garnered attention over the years–albeit with varying success.
The Kneipp Cure
As a young man, Sebastian Kneipp suffered from tuberculosis and was unable to join the priesthood. Determined to cure his ailment, he turned to water for treatment. Legend has it, he rid himself of the disease through carefully targeted water therapy. The validity of this claim is up for debate, but Kneipp nevertheless discovered valuable and sound aquatic treatments.
Kneipp therapy is focused primarily on the flow and pressure of water on the body to encourage circulation. Most of the treatments utilize cold water; however, there are warm water immersion techniques in the Kneipp tradition which many find boost the cardiovascular system, soothe aches and pains, and induce relaxation.
Though less recognized among scientific communities, the merits of hydromassage therapy have accrued significant anecdotal support over recent years. Hydromassage beds circulate warm water jets to apply pressure onto various points of the body. Limited studies have suggested that these treatments boost circulation, relieve muscle soreness, and increase range of motion.
Some of the most promising research suggests that submerged hydromassage therapy reduced discomfort and increased exercise tolerance in heart disease patients with postmyocordial infarctions. The treatments improved circulation and increased mobility, offering patients a better quality of life. In the study, the researchers discovered that, for over half of the trial group, the residual benefits lasted 12 months after treatment.
Inhalation therapy is a disputed treatment associated with as many benefits as there are risks. Most of the evidence in support of the therapy is anecdotal, and recent research has pointed toward adverse health effects. Young children in particular are susceptible to steam burns in the lungs and throat if the treatment is not properly administered.
However, when cautiously utilized, steam inhalation does have purported respiratory, dermatological, and circulatory benefits. Saunas, hot tubs, and other “steamy” environments are often safer than direct inhalation, yet still produce the desired results.
Wet wrap therapy has demonstrated to be an effective dermatological and pain management treatment for certain patients. In heat wrap therapy, wet, heated compresses are applied to an afflicted area of the body. One study suggests that heat wraps are an effective treatment for localized wrist pain. In the trials, researchers recorded significant pain decreases and improved grip strength among the subjects.
Wet wrap therapy has had a more extensive history in dermatology. However, these treatments are still experimental and not fully understood. In 2015, researchers conducted a study to explore the physiological response to wraps in patients suffering from skin conditions. They concluded that, though more research was needed, wet wrap therapy allowed the skin to secrete harmful toxins that cause eczema and other afflictions.
Toward a More Active Future
Hydrotherapy has proven over the centuries to be a viable, painless treatment method for many individuals suffering the common symptoms of aging. As scientific research catches up, more and more is learned about the practice every day. Who knew there were so many therapeutic possibilities in a single hot tub?
Retirees deserve the opportunity to live an active lifestyle, unrestricted by joint stiffness, muscle fatigue, and circulatory struggles. Warm water therapy has shown to improve mobility, increase circulation, and relieve joint pain. Just like slipping into a warm bath, let the body ease into aging, with muscles relaxed, blood flowing, and joint tension relieved. Live the best years of life with flexibility, mobility, and vitality.
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