When you are recovering from an injury or a surgical procedure, it is often recommended that you ease yourself into sports activities by first engaging in low-impact exercises. Swimming can be an excellent recovery exercise to consider when planning your recovery program and the best part is that pool workouts are generally accessible for most people.
Swimming, when adapted as a type of aquatic therapy, is safe and effective as the buoyancy of water helps support your body while still providing enough resistance to help strengthen the muscles and ligaments that needs rehabilitation. Research has also shown that hydrotherapy is a great way to re-introduce movement to your body and rebuild strength after a period of inactivity due to injury or surgery. The commonly-reported therapeutic effects include reduced rates of inflammatory response as well as a considerable reduction in overall recovery time.
The non-weight-bearing nature of water-based exercises also means that there is less stress on joints. This lessens the risk of re-injury, especially for people who are recovering from a knee injury or surgery. Being in a weightless environment has the added benefit of keeping your muscles loose and flexible as swimming (using different strokes) has been shown to actively stretch and alleviate the pain in different parts of your body.
In today’s article, we will cover the dos and don’ts of adopting therapeutic swimming as a way to rehabilitate your body after an injury or a reconstructive surgery. But first, let’s take a look at the science behind the magic of a pool workout.
How Does Hydrostatic Pressure Work to Aid Recovery?
Doctors and surgeons regularly recommend swimming as a form of aerobic exercise that requires little to no impact while also helping in musculoskeletal rehabilitation. Hydrostatic pressure refers to the weight of a fluid against an object. As your body is submerged in water, hydrostatic pressure creates a support system that surrounds your body from all sides.
This hydrostatic support allows for mobility while gently cushioning your limbs and body at the same time. The underwater pressure performs like a compression band that improves circulation and cuts down on lactic acid production which also results in reduced soreness.
In addition, there is constant stimulation during underwater exercise and this in turn relaxes the body by reducing any discomfort and muscle spasms. As a result, regular sessions at the pool usually result in a perceivable decrease in inflammation and pain, especially for patients undergoing rehabilitation from reconstructive surgeries.
Benefiting from a Zero-Impact Environment
One major difference between land activities and pool workouts is the effect of gravity. When you are immersed up to your chest or neck, your body weight is reduced from 75-90%. This buoyancy effect greatly decreases the stress to your joints and connective tissues as compared to when you are exercising on land. You are also allowed to stretch out your tight muscles better due to an increased range of motion when exercising in the water.
Swimming is a Safer Form of Cardio Exercise
Just because you are still recovering from an injury does not mean that cardiovascular activity is off the table. Swimming is one way you can still stay in shape safely while still reaping the benefits of a challenging cardiovascular workout. It’s often the only way to maintain your cardiovascular endurance while you are still rehabilitating an injury. In some cases, regular laps at the pool have even improved the performance of some patients who were in recovery.
An often overlooked advantage of swimming is that it is an exercise that uses several different muscle groups, depending on the strokes you use. Upper-body muscles used during swimming include your latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, deltoids, biceps, triceps and brachialis. Lower-body muscles include your quads, hamstrings, glutes and your gastroc and soleus (calf muscles). Swimming also requires the use of your core muscles and helps strengthen muscles you do not normally use.
Proper Form and Strokes Matter
To prevent any swimming-related injury, it is essential to observe proper swimming form. You should be paying close attention to body position at all times. The more the body sinks in the water, the greater the resistance. The added friction also makes it harder to move through the water.
Your head position should not be affecting the placement of your pelvis and legs by being either too high or too low. Just remember that the objective is to move as much water as you can while trying to keep your arms on the same line as your shoulders.
You need the support of your large muscle groups as you move through the water and this is where your core strength and stability comes into the picture. By training your abdominal muscles, you can become a more efficient swimmer with less risk of injury or strain.
Find a Partner or Trainer If You Have to
Even though swimming is relatively gentle on the body, there is still risk of incurring or exacerbating an injury. It is always wise to check with your doctor or physiotherapist regarding your suitability to take to the pool. Your doctor can help you decide on the best type of water activity at any point in your recovery journey. There are also certified trainers who specialise in water-based rehabilitation programs you can engage.
What Happens If I Can’t Swim
If you are unable to swim, there are other water-based exercises that you can consider for your therapeutic requirements. Aquatherapy (walking or jogging in water) and water aerobics are also highly effective ways to alleviate your pain and promote a faster recovery from injury. There are local Aquatherapy clinics that offer a wide range of classes that would likely be suitable for your therapeutic needs and current physical level.
- It is easy to forget about staying hydrated when you are in the water. Always remember to have a water bottle nearby to keep yourself hydrated throughout your session.
- Do not swim alone even when there is a lifeguard at the pool, you should have at least one other swimmer with you at the pool and follow the buddy system where you watch out for each another.
- If you are not a strong swimmer, you should opt for a flotation device.
- Immediately stop exercising if you feel breathless, dizzy, nauseous or weak. There shouldn’t also be any pain or pressure in your upper body.
Swimming not only helps greatly with recovery for post-op patients or patients recovering from joint or muscle issues, it can also help improve pain in a variety of situations. One such example is the report of lower recurrence of back pain among regular swimmers. Swimming (using the appropriate swimming strokes) can help to strengthen your supporting back muscles without the usual wear and tear of land-based activities.
In short, water therapy is highly beneficial for muscle sprains and tears due to its low-impact nature. Swimming (or walking in the water) is often touted among doctors as one of the preferred rehabilitation exercises for injuries to your ligaments, muscles, or tendons. Swimming is also an activity that can be easy to work into your schedule if you are able to find an accessible facility.
At Hip & Knee Orthopaedics, we always do our best to ensure that patients are well-informed about the best available rehabilitation practices or methods. We highly recommend that you consider trying any of the water-based activities that you might find to be suitable for your needs.