Aquatics as a Treatment for Herniated Discs
Approximately 80% of adults will experience an episode of low back pain in their lifetime. Studies indicate that next to upper respiratory infections, back pain is the leading cause for visits to primary care physicians. Although most instances of back pain resolve in a matter of days to weeks, about 75% will resolve within a month and over 90% by 3 months. Occasionally, low back pain can radiate into the legs, leading to a sensation of "numbness." One possibile cause for this numbness is compression at the nerve root from a herniated disc. Although surgery for a herniated disc is not always indicated, approximately 10% to 15% of patients will eventualy require surgery. Conservative treatments for low back pain and herniated discs may include oral medications, bed rest, lumbar corsets and physical therapy.
Physical therapy interventions of proper posture, lifting techniques, exercise and lumbar stabilization are likely to be effective. Lumbar stabilization is the strengthening of the core muscles of the trunk and is central to a successful rehab. According to Anna M. Helmstetter, PTA at Progressive Physical Therapy, aquatic physical therapy can be extremely beneficial, as the properties of water will help to unload the spine and relieve symptoms. The buoyancy of water can be used for assistance, support, or resistance and can be graded for difficulty. Also, the neutral warmth of an aquatic pool allows for greater muscle relaxation.
Aquatic therapy exercises at Progressive Physical Therapy include increasing range of motion, strength and flexibility, as well as reducing pain and numbness into the affected extremity. Patients who have undergone surgery to relieve the symptoms associated with a herniated disc may be limited by what they can do in the aquatic environment, but the benefits of strengthening, pain relief and lumbar stabilization can still be accomplished. Lumbar stabilization is accomplished in the pool through the use of floatation techniques, such as Bad Ragaz, in which the therapist provides manual stability and resistance to a functional pattern of movement. Additional stabilization exercises might include abdominal strengthening with dynamic movements. In order to decrease the numbness associated with a herniated disc, deep-water traction is often utilized to unload the spine. The ultimate goal of any aquatic program is to transition the patient from the pool to a land-based strengthening program in order to return the patient to optimum function.