Amelia Habicht suffered a stroke in 2009. She’s since begun participating in aquatic therapy at the local YMCA.

Aquatic therapy methods have long been used as a tool to assist in recovering from a variety of ailments that require physical therapy, the forgiving nature of water allowing a larger margin of error for patients than other therapeutic environments.?

Aquatic therapy treatments, or interventions as they are called in the physical therapy field, are used to assist with balance and muscle building, along with a host of other aspects of physical rehabilitation. Though it takes place in a heated pool, aquatic therapy is much more centered on upright exercises than swimming.?

A new research study is meant to clarify some of the murkiness surrounding aquatic therapy’s effectiveness as opposed to treadmill-based land interventions, whether one is better than the other or if a combination is the best course for therapy.

The Ithaca College physical therapy professors conducting the study, Chris McNamara and Sarah Fishel, said there are not enough results yet to make any certain distinctions. Fishel specializes in treating patients with neurological impairments, such as those who have suffered strokes, while McNamara is primarily an orthopedic physical therapist who focuses on aquatic treatments.?

A prior two-patient pilot program yielded results that provided enough curiosity for them to continue their study, and simultaneously showed the viability of their research question.?

“They were convoluted, that was the most promising thing about it, I think,” Fishel said, noting that both pilot participants used aquatic and treadmill treatments, and experienced different improvements. “That leads us to believe there’s something there that needs further investigation.”

The pilot also provided grounds for an application for further grant funding, through the American Physical Therapists Association, for $2500. That funding will go to the study’s participants, who receive $10 per session, for a total of $150 if they complete the full program.?

The goal is to have 15 patient participants, with the only requirement being that six months must have passed since the patient’s stroke, to ensure that no natural regaining of faculties will skew the final results.?

“[Treadmill] intervention has been studied a lot, there’s good evidence to support its use for people with strokes, but what we have found is that aquatic therapy does not have a lot of research to show that it’s effective in rehab for walking and balance for people with strokes,” Fishel said.?

Fishel said one of the goals of the study is building evidence to give stroke survivors more options for their rehabilitation regimens. When they enter rehab, the patients must choose their treatment route, and more information always proves valuable, equally for patients and therapists.?

Aquatic therapy’s additional safety benefits may also increase the efficiency with which specialists can treat patients, Fishel said, as there is less chance for a harmful accident. One therapist could theoretically train more than one patient at a time, while on a treadmill it can only be one-on-one interventions. This is complicated, McNamara said, by insurance company rules, but the potential could be there in the future.?

Despite aquatic therapy’s existing utilization in the field, and McNamara’s own successful usage of the methods with patients, there is still a lack of published research material that backs up its clinical validity.

“I can’t go to the base of evidence and say, ‘This intervention for this patient has been proven to be effective in general for other patients,’” she said. “That’s what we want to contribute to […] It’s a resource that we want to provide to physical therapists.”

Amelia Habicht suffered a stroke in June 2009, which resulted in some temporary cognitive losses as well as the loss of use in her left side, much of which she has recovered. She is now participating in the aquatic therapy study after taking part in the pilot program.?

Before her stroke, she was the picture of health, working out often and generally avoiding the sort of behaviors commonly associated with risks until she suffered a spontaneously dissected carotid artery out of the blue. She said personally, she does not notice much of a difference in terms of the effectiveness between aquatic or normal therapy.?

?“I can’t say one has been better, or not as good,” she said. “They each have their value for their own reasons.”

Despite still recovering from her stroke, she is training for an upcoming Iron Man competition, and said she enjoys the feeling of exhaustion after a workout, something she doesn’t get from the water interventions. That, and the increased prep time of the water interventions, make her prefer the normal land routine for now, though she said that could change as the study goes on. For Habicht, it comes down to her future functionality and not much more.?

“What I’m looking for, in any kind of physical therapy I seek out, is the effect of gaining some skill or habit that will help me throughout the day, every day,” she said.? ?

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