MS and Exercise: Take Control with Aquatic Therapy

By Kathy San Martino, PT, NCS, MSCS, CLT, ATP and Kelsey Hackett, PT, DPT

Casa Colina Hospital and Centers for Healthcare For individuals living with a fatiguing disability like Multiple Sclerosis (MS), getting the recommended amount of exercise can seem daunting. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), almost 50% of adults with disabilities get no aerobic activity, placing them at increased risk for issues like heart disease and diabetes.

The CDC recommends at least 2.5 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity. But for those with physical disabilities from orthopedic or neurological issues, the barriers to exercise can be many: fear of falling, lack of companionship, inaccessible facilities, and general fatigue. If these reasons sound familiar, you should consider aquatic therapy.

Aquatic therapy uses the natural properties of water—buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure, viscosity, and resistance—to eliminate impact on weight-bearing joints during exercise. For those who find it difficult to walk or exercise on land, the pool provides an ideal environment to practice stretching, range of motion (ROM) exercises, and strength and aerobic training.

Why? For one, aquatic therapy requires less strength to move, allowing for greater range of motion to practice correcting awkward gait patterns brought on by pain or weakness. Water’s natural buoyancy offers more support for balance and allows exercise in a vertical position without fear of falling.

The hydrostatic properties of water can also help decrease edema, making aquatic therapy an ideal option for those with lymphedema, a common manifestation in individuals with MS. Hydrostatic pressure also provides even tactile input, reducing hypersensitivity in some individuals and promoting body awareness in others.

Additionally, the viscosity of water produces resistance evenly along the limb, providing the opportunity for strength training while minimizing pain. Resistance can even be adjusted by altering the speed of movement or adding equipment to your limbs, such as paddles or dumbbells.

For those lacking an exercise partner, the group nature of aquatic therapy provides encouragement and camaraderie. And if you’re worried about accessibility, many facilities offer chair lifts for entering and exiting the pool. Some facilities even offer the choice of warm- and cool-water pools for those with temperature sensitivities.

Exercise doesn’t have to be intimidating. Aquatic therapy is an effective, accessible, and customizable option for those with orthopedic or neurological impairments of all degrees. For more information on Casa Colina’s Multiple Sclerosis Program, call 909/596-7733, ext. 3800.

This article originally appeared in West Coast Magazine March/April 2019.