Each year at the Annual SMA Conference, the session on Aquatic Therapy is among the most popular for attendees of all ages. Jennifer Martyn, PT, is one of the leaders of this educational and fun session. Normally this time of year, Jennifer and her staff would begin ordering new gear for the pool, labeling items for time in the water, and deciding whose hotel room would be the laminating headquarters for exercise sheets.

“Although I wish the greater SMA community could come together and share this time in the water, I am encouraged that the water can still be a place of improved independence, active movement and, of course, much joy in your community and with your family,” says Martyn.

Should an opportunity arise for individuals and families affected by spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) to find a quiet community pool, a warm bay, or a family hot tub, Martyn encourages you to take it.

Why Aqua Therapy?

Aquatic therapy is a valuable exercise for those with SMA. “Any exercise is more engaging when it is fun. And you are more likely to return to it, push yourself, and realize the benefits from being in the water,” says Martyn.

Water allows for ease of active movement, variations of stability levels, and the ability to support or challenge yourself on desired activity demand (Anderson, Aquatic Therapy) . Additionally, aquatic therapy is an effective therapeutic tool for both physical and mental health.

“Being in the water is not only fun, social, and freeing from the nasty effects of gravity (not allowing movement) but it also has positive effects on your kidneys, mood, and digestive system. It also allows for stretching, pulmonary exercise, and trunk mobility that you cannot get while in your wheelchair,” shares Martyn.

Be mindful of who you are getting in the water with and what level of respiratory protection everyone is most comfortable with.

As you plan for times to get out and play, Martyn encourages you to think about a few things:

  • Always safety first. If you use suction frequently, then have it pool side. Evaluate how you are going to get in/out safely. If you choose to get in the water with a trach, extreme care must be taken to ensure that no water gets in/near the stoma site.
  • Water temperature. As you jump in the water for yourself or with your family member, think about the temperature. It does matter and it will impact how long you can stay in the water and how happy you will be there. 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit is considered therapeutic and ideal for most with SMA who are full-time chair users. If you have SMA and can walk/move vigorously, you may prefer a slightly cooler pool at 86-88 degrees Fahrenheit. This will allow you to move fast enough to keep up your body temperature.
  • What’s your goal? Are you getting in for fun (time in the lazy river) or to work on more therapy related activities? Life jackets and head collars are great for the lazy river. You can be more hands-off but always eyeson and within arms-reach. If you are more focused on exercise, pick the supports you need to maximize function and provide the needed support to maximize your ability to reach your goals and keep you safe. That could include a neck support, floats on your wrists or waist, or weights on your ankles for improved stability.
  • Mobility. If you are a full-time chair user and want to work on standing/upright, try some light (1/2 pound to 1.5 pound) weights on your ankles. Folks with tight hips are generally unstable in upright but a light weight can provide the needed grounding to be stable and grounded in the water.
  • Toys. Balls, floaty barbells, pool noodles, and wrist floats can be used for exercises and stability, and make your time in the water more engaging, stable, and fun.