Arthritis in all its forms—rheumatoid arthritis (RA), osteoarthritis (OA), gout, and fibromyalgia—has likely been a bane for humankind since the beginning of time. So, too, have tonics for this condition that can lead to a lesser quality of life for the approximately 50 million adults in the United States who are afflicted.

The Toll Of Arthritis

Perhaps one of the most poignant aspects of this drop in perceived life quality is that as seniors succumb to age-related decline, they lose their general sense of freedom, including freedom to do what they want, when they want, and with whom they want.

They may be unable to access community events and resources; they may be reluctant to walk or even get out of a chair frequently due to the pain and effort involved; and by struggling to maintain their previously enjoyed standard of living, they can exacerbate problems even further.  Without freedom, they begin to feel trapped and isolated from interacting with friends, family, and loved ones.

The joy that comes with being able to perform some of life’s simple pleasures is effectively anesthetized. 

Remedies Abound

Plenty of arthritis remedies have been marketed to those with the condition that affects all ethnicities, including one solution that has been gaining widespread popularity and applicability in an era where arthritis is taking a toll on social, financial, and occupational freedoms: aquatic therapy. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and other cultures touted hot spas as a soothing way to provide relief from the stiffness, soreness, and swelling of arthritis. Currently, warm pools and tubs are still being prescribed. 
aqua arthritis therapy
However, physical and occupational therapists can now offer a technologically advanced twist on a historical arthritis treatment, with pools equipped with variable-depth treadmill floors, resistance/massage jets, and video cameras. 

This “back to the future” opportunity for unique rehabilitation options has proven advantageous, especially to those over 50 years of age who deal with arthritis-related symptoms.

Physical, Psychological, Social Benefits

Seniors, some of whom who cannot securely walk across the room to retrieve a soda from the refrigerator, are able to walk, jog, or even run—a definite boon to their sense of freedom—using this high-tech twist on an old remedy.

The overall benefits can be divided into three distinct silos:  physical, psychological, and social.
It is not unusual for arthritic seniors to initially come to physical and occupational therapists in response to a medical need such as rehabilitation post-surgery, pain, obesity due to lack of ability to exercise, or perceived reduction in quality of life.

Unfortunately for these populations, traditional land-based therapy may exacerbate the problem more than relieve it. Many of these patients would not tolerate the intensity and duration of exercise on land that is possible in these high-tech pools.

Much Less Stress On Body

For example, a 200-pound man who has undergone joint replacement surgery may be unable to withstand the pain associated with land-based therapies, especially if he suffers from arthritis in other areas of his body. His discomfort (both physical and emotional) can lead to subpar performance during therapy, cancelled appointments, and, ultimately, decreasing or delaying positive outcomes and discharge.

With aquatic therapy in a pool with an underwater treadmill, this same man can enjoy a warm, inviting environment that provides the same results as land-based therapies without the inherent problems noted above. Essentially, his 200-pound frame could be made to feel as little as 40 pounds depending upon water depth.

Positive outcomes, such as patients able to walk comfortably on the underwater treadmill for specified periods of time, can lead to physical strength gains. These gains then make land-based therapies easier, should patients and their physical or occupational therapists decide to divide their prescribed rehab allotment between traditional and aquatic therapies.

As time goes on the program can be advanced objectively; the underwater treadmill speed and resistance jets can be increased incrementally, which has been shown to provide the same physical responses for participants as walking or jogging uphill, but without joint stress.

Being able to sustain exercise for a significant length of time also benefits cardiovascular health and weight management better than traditional “reps and sets” programs, a critical component that is missing in this population, especially given that about 52 percent of persons with doctor-diagnosed arthritis are either overweight or obese.

Emotional Assurance Fuels Consistency

Another element of aquatic therapy for arthritis sufferers that takes place in a pool with an integrated underwater treadmill is the psychological response that occurs on the part of the patient.

Arthritis sufferers often struggle with emotional issues due to their inability to comfortably complete what they once deemed “simple” tasks like walking to get the mail, walking their dog, or even simple home tasks like cooking or doing the laundry.  These feelings of inadequacy can become persistent and lead to conditions such as depression, including major depressive episodes (as reported by almost one in five patients with arthritis).
aqua arthritis therapy
The pool with treadmill releases patients from those limitations. They can challenge their balance, in addition to working their heart and muscles intensely enough to cause change without worsening problems.

Beyond the physical benefits of exercise, such as the release of endorphins, for instance, the ability to participate in a rigorous activity without the negative responses is both encouraging and motivating.

Advanced Treatment, Old-Fashioned Principles

There is a saying that “everything old becomes new again.”

This may be true of utilizing water’s influence—and then improving upon it with technologies like underwater treadmills and resistance jets—to alleviate the symptoms of arthritis for individual patients.

The end result? A reduction of the onerous impact arthritis has on families, communities, and workplaces, as well as more options for physical and occupational therapists seeking to help their clientele safely and effectively reach their goals.

In other words, it’s the freedom seniors seek when looking forward to their golden years.
Jeffrey Kallberg has been a physical therapist since 1994 and is co-founder of ACCUA ( He and his brother started ACCUA with the goal of making aquatic therapy more accessible to “ordinary” people.
Research Resources
■ “The Heavy Burden of Arthritis in the U.S.,” Arthritis Foundation, Aug. 10, 2011
■ “Arthritis-Related Statistics,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Aug. 1, 2011
■ “Comparative Efficacy of Water and Land Treadmill Training for Overweight or Obese Adults,”  Greene, et al., Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2009