Healing the Body and Mind Through Water

Former Director of the Washington State University National Aquatics and Sports Medicine Institute Bruce Becker MD shares how aquatic therapy can unlock healing in both the body and the mind.

Bruce Becker MD doesn’t mind seeing people at their worst. He says, through his years  as a physician working with aquatic rehabilitation, he has taken the most joy from taking his patients from where they are, following illness or injury, to where they want most to be.

“It is really one of the most holistic medical fields I can possibly think of. I mean we don’t have an organ system: what we have is a human,” said Becker. “That’s an entirely different way of looking at healing and recovery.”

The former Director of the National Aquatics and Sports Medicine Institute, Becker spent his career using warm water immersion to achieve recovery that not only assisted on a physical level, but also with mental well-being. 

In this episode of Powering Health and Wellness with RPM Rehab, Dr. Becker explains the multifaceted benefits of aquatic therapy and shares his hopes for the future of the practice.

The instant ease of water

The first time patients step into the pool, they often observe the instant benefits of beginning the healing process in water. For many, Becker says it can ease the road to recovery.

“I watched how they did in the water: spinal cord injury patients and stroke patients in particular. The results were amazing.”

One of the most amazing powers of water is its immediate healing effect. When Becker brings patients with chronic pain into the pool, he often gets emotional results. The water instantly relieves some of their daily pain.

“I can remember a number of cases when I would get a patient in the pool and they would just sigh in relief or they would, at times, even cry,” said Becker. “For the first time, in water, they were pain-free. It was quite remarkable.” said Becker.

This relaxing and naturally healing quality of water is what makes aquatic rehabilitation so successful. It can often serve as the perfect first step towards recovery. 

Many times, stepping into the pool can be the difference between a patient complaining about physical therapy and a patient excited to continue their therapy. 

“There’s a big difference between the kind of early phase, post-op rehab that can happen using the water versus what happens in the gym. I go down to the gym and I see patients with grimaces on their faces. I go down to the pool and I see them smiling,” Becker said.

Psychological healing

The power of the pool doesn’t stop at its physical effects. Aquatic rehabilitation has proven to be useful as a recovery tool for the mind.

Throughout his career, Becker has used warm water immersion therapy with injured veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and PTSD in close collaboration with the Wounded Warrior Project.

“It made a big difference in their recovery outcomes,” said Becker. “I saw warm water immersion as incredibly useful in the management of PTSD.”

There’s a complex science behind why warm water immersion can aid in recovery of these mental conditions. The therapy helps to change the central nervous system in an important way: it regulates the fight-or-flight response within a patient.

“What happens in PTSD is that the nervous system component has been called up so often during a series of traumatic events that it never really relaxes back to baseline. Warm water immersion allows that automatically to down-regulate.”

This neurophysiological process benefits the patient in many ways. It reduces blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and, most vitally for PTSD patients, improves brain function.

“It allows your brain to more widely range, it improves memory, it improves a whole bunch of things from the standpoint of actual cerebral activity function.”

The future of aquatics

Despite all these clear benefits, these forms of aquatic therapy aren’t that common in the physical therapy field.

Becker hopes in the future that aquatic rehabilitation’s lasting impact both physically and mentally will be more recognized in the mainstream.

“The fact that it isn’t more widely used has been a major frustration for me. It isn’t very commonly used and the existence of therapeutic pools is not really widespread across the world and the United States. It really ought to be a mainline opportunity.”

He has published a number of studies detailing the benefits of this type of rehabilitation therapy. However, Becker believes there needs to be a shift in the attitude of funding disease prevention initiatives. 

“I wish that the recognition of wellness promotion were more actively pursued at a federal level and there were more grant opportunities.”

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