“This is the first study to compare the efficacy of therapeutic aquatic exercise and physical therapy modalities in the treatment of chronic low back pain,” senior coauthors Pei-Jie Chen, PhD and Xue-Qiang Wang, PhD, both of the department of sport rehabilitation, Shanghai (China) University of Sport, wrote in JAMA Network Open. “Therapeutic aquatic exercise is a safe treatment for chronic low back pain and most participants who received it were willing to recommend it to other patients with chronic low back pain.”
As compared with individuals in the physical therapy modalities arm, the therapeutic aquatic exercise experienced greater relief of disability at all time points assessed: after the 3-month intervention, at the 6-month follow-up, and at the 12-month follow-up.
Commenting on the study, Linda Girgis, MD, FAAFP, a family physician in private practice in South River, N.J., agreed that aquatic therapy is a great tool for many chronic low back patients. “It helps them get active for one and do things that may exacerbate their symptoms doing the same exercises on land,” noted Dr. Girgis, who also is a clinical assistant professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick.
She pointed out that access to a pool can be a problem. “But I have found a few physical therapy places in my area that do have access to a pool, and I refer appropriate patients there,” added Dr. Girgis, who was not involved with the study. “I have also found it works well for other types of pain, such as knee and hip pain. It is not for everyone but I have seen some patients get great benefit from it when they didn’t get any with traditional physical therapy.”
Aquatic therapy was more beneficial
Low back pain is a common condition, and clinical practice guidelines currently recommend therapeutic exercise and physical therapy modalities. Among the modalities that are available, therapeutic aquatic exercise is often prescribed for chronic low back pain, and it is becoming increasingly popular for treatment of chronic low back pain, the authors stated in their paper. The authors noted that water is an ideal environment for conducting an exercise program given its various properties, including buoyancy pressure, density, thermal capacity, and conductivity.
Two previously published systematic reviews have suggested that therapeutic aquatic exercise may be able to reduce the intensity of back pain and improve function in this population. But to date, evidence regarding long-term benefits in patients with chronic low back pain is very limited and there haven’t been any studies comparing the efficacy of therapeutic aquatic exercise and physical therapy modalities for chronic low back pain, according to the authors.
In this study, 113 individuals with chronic low back pain were randomized to either therapeutic aquatic exercise or to physical therapy, with an endpoint of efficacy regarding disability. This was measured using the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire.
Scores ranged from 0 to 24, with higher scores indicating more severe disability. Secondary endpoints included pain intensity, quality of life, sleep quality, and recommendation of intervention, and these were rated using various standardized tools.
Those randomized to the therapeutic aquatic exercise group had about an hour of therapy, beginning with a 10-minute active warm-up session to enhance neuromuscular activation, then an exercise session for 40 minutes followed by a 10-minute cooldown.
The physical therapy group received transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation and infrared ray thermal therapy, also for 60 minutes. Both groups received these interventions twice a week for 3 months.
The overall mean age of the cohort was 31.0 years, and they were almost evenly divided by gender; 54 were men (47.8%), and 59 were women (52.2%).
As compared with the physical therapy group, individuals participating in therapeutic aquatic exercise group showed improvement in disability by an additional −1.77 points (95% confidence interval, −3.02 to −0.51) at the end of the 3-month intervention; at 6 months it was −2.42 points (95% CI, −4.13 to −0.70) and −3.61 points (95% CI, −5.63 to −1.58) at the 12-month follow-up (P < .001 for overall group x time interaction).
Functional improvement did not appear to be significantly affected by confounders that included age, sex, body mass index, low back pain duration, educational level, or pain level.
For secondary outcomes, those in the therapeutic aquatic exercise group demonstrated improvement in the most severe pain by an additional −0.79 points (95% CI, −1.31 to −0.27) after the 3-month intervention, −1.34 points (95% CI, −2.06 to −0.62) at 6 months, and −2.04 points (95% CI, −2.75 to −1.34) at the 12-month follow-up (P < .001 for overall group x time interaction), as compared with the physical therapy group. All pain scores differed significantly between the two groups at every time point.
In addition, individuals in the therapeutic aquatic exercise group showed more improvements on the 36-item Short-form Health Survey (overall group x time interaction, P = .003), Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (overall group x time interaction, P = .02), Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia (overall group x time interaction, P < .001), and Fear-Avoidance Beliefs Questionnaire (physical activity subscale overall group x time interaction, P = .04), as compared with the physical therapy group. These improvements were also not influenced by confounders.
Finally, at the 12-month follow-up point, those in the aquatic therapy group had significantly greater improvements in the number of participants who met the minimal clinically important difference in pain (at least a 2-point improvement on the numeric rating scale).
More outside experts’ takes
“The current research evidence does suggest indeed that aquatic exercise therapy is suitable and often better than land exercise, passive relaxation, or other treatments for many people with low back pain,” commented Stelios Psycharakis PhD, senior lecturer in biomechanics, Institute for Sport, Physical Education and Health Sciences, University of Edinburgh.
He also noted that since low back pain is an issue affecting about 80% of all people at some stage of their life, it is “improbable that one could identify a single type of treatment or exercise therapy that would be suitable for every person with this problem.”
Dr. Psycharakis pointed out that there are also some contraindications for aquatic therapy, such as incontinence and skin conditions. “Other than that though, clinicians should definitely consider aquatic exercise therapy when advising people with chronic low back pain,” he said.
Justin M. Lantz, DPT, agreed that the study showed therapeutic aquatic exercise appears to be safe and beneficial in some patients with chronic low back pain, but he also shared limitations of the new research.
“The study has notable limitations as it did not include patients above 65 years old, pain levels were generally low for the subjects involved, and it did not include a treatment group with land therapeutic exercise – so it is difficult to determine if the beneficial effects reported were due to active exercise or because the exercises were performed in water,” said Dr. Lantz, director of the spine physical therapy fellowship program at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and an assistant professor of clinical physical therapy.
He also pointed out that, since active exercise has been shown to be beneficial and is advocated in multiple clinical practice guidelines for chronic low back pain, “it would be helpful to determine if the true effects on pain and disability were due to the water environment or the effect of active exercise itself.”
“Due to the significant positive long-term effects and limited adverse events reported, I believe this study supports the use of therapeutic aquatic exercise in select patient populations with chronic low back pain and should be considered as a part of a rehabilitation treatment plan if accessibility is feasible,” Dr. Lantz said.
The authors of the paper, Dr. Girgis, and Dr. Psycharakis had no conflicts of interest. Justin Lantz is a physical therapy consultant to SI-Bone.