Swimming and Cerebral Palsy

Swimming and Cerebral Palsy

Among the many physical therapy options available for those with Cerebral Palsy, one of the most popular is aquatic intervention. Optimizing movement and function are central in bringing out the full potential and independence of someone with Cerebral Palsy, and swimming exercises can help do just that. Like other therapies for those with Cerebral Palsy, aquatic therapy is an attractive option for two reasons: first, because of the well-established therapeutic benefits, and second, because being in the water is a great all-in-one way to have fun, exercise, and socialize. And, since swimming pools can be accessed both indoors and outdoors, aquatic therapy can be practiced and enjoyed outside in the summer sunshine, or inside safe from the winter elements.

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For children with Cerebral Palsy, motivation to get into the pool and enjoy therapy can be drawn from classic films where water is the main setting like The Little Mermaid (1989), Finding Nemo (2003), and Finding Dory (2016). The happy motto of Dory the fish from Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, “Just Keep Swimming,” has both literal and symbolic relevance to aquatic therapy, and if parents just echo Dory’s characteristic positivity and nonchalant confidence while voicing this motto to their children, it would surely be an inspiration – or an occasion for laughter, depending on delivery... But how are swimming exercises supposed to provide therapeutic benefits?

The feeling of weightlessness in water, it turns out, has much more utility than simply bringing about smiles and delight. The buoyancy of water means that while submerged, the effects of gravity are lessened, and this lessening of gravity provides ideal conditions for those with Cerebral Palsy to exercise muscles and extend joints in ways not possible on land. Given the full brunt of gravity, it can be difficult for those with conditions that restrict physical movement to optimize range of motion and make therapeutic progress. But the weightlessness involved in aquatic therapy allows patients to float, splash, and undulate their way to improved physical mobility, circulation, balance, coordination, posture, endurance, and more!

By performing various condition-specific swimming exercises, many with physical movement restrictions literally feel weight being lifted from the range of possible activities available in the water that may not be available, or may be much more difficult, while out of the water. This increased level of freedom – a therapeutic benefit in itself – allows for the patient’s developments in the water to gradually manifest on land so long as aquatic therapy is being continually sustained.

One study concluded that gross motor function of children with Cerebral Palsy aged 5 to 14 years-old substantially improved in as little as six weeks! And while the results can be inspiring and drastic, the very process of going to a pool, swimming, and learning new skills is valuable, especially since this process involves being social and interacting with fellow patients and instructors. Embracing opportunities to adopt positive life habits and socialize is crucial to anyone’s well-being.

So what’s the take-away? Swimming therapy in both its process and its results can contribute to an overall healthy quality of life for those with Cerebral Palsy and others with movement challenges. Now that’s something to splash about.