Chronic pain affects more than 100 million Americans — more people than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. For over 35 years, I’ve been helping folks self-manage chronic pain by focusing on movement and incorporating sleep, nutrition, and thought control into any program I create or direct.

The answer for helping those with chronic illness with overcoming pain? Water.

We found long ago that movement in warm water is the perfect solution for those suffering. While in the water, patients can stretch and move pain-free in its soothing warmth. In water, the weight of a human body can be reduced up to 90%, depending upon the depth of the water, meaning a 150-pound person carries as little as 15 pounds when submerged.

Through the years, I explored many options, techniques, and pools with my clients, contracting with many types of facilities. We achieved great results together and I earned the trust of practitioners in the area yet we were limited in the type of cardio activity we could provide in these pools.

In 2007, I found the HydroWorx pool at Pieter’s Family Life Center.  This pool changed the way I worked with my clients. The floor of the pool actually moves vertically to adjust the depth of water, allowing easy access to those in wheelchairs or on crutches. The moveable floor lets patients roll right onto the raised floor from the pool deck. Not only that—the floor of the pool, when lowered, also serves as a variable-speed treadmill, allowing patients to walk using a normal, land-based gait and strengthen the muscles and balance they need on land.  I began to learn more deeply about the tremendous psychological and physiological benefits of this new type of movement in water—from digestion to mood—especially for those suffering from chronic pain. I joined Pieter’s Family Life Center full-time, running all of their community-based programs.  We use the HydroWorx pool in many capacities to serve our community.

Traditional physical therapy. Through insurance reimbursement, folks can see a physical therapist and go through a traditional program for aquatic therapy. As I mentioned, the treadmill is extremely flexible in terms of the water depth, water temperature and speed. A new world of pain-free movement opens up to our PT patients.

Open to public. At certain times, we also open the pool to the public and let people in, just like accessing a public pool. We let four people at a time on the treadmill for 30 minutes each session. They’ve been pre-screened and time tested, so we’re able to put like-paced users together. We build relationships with other practitioners in town and they recommend their patients to us as the “next step” to ongoing improvement (and when your medical care provider tells you to do something, you listen)!

Fitness classes. We have also created a couple of fitness classes with all the therapeutic exercises for rehabbing hips, knees and backs.  In 30 minutes we do as much as we can to cover from the top of your hair to the tips of your toes—going through each motion and strengthening in the pool. Water provides low-impact, low-weight bearing exercise and minimizes the risk or injury or undue stress on the joints.  It reduces the foot-striking forces that so often “jar” muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones, lessening the burden on the body.  We make the classes very affordable—less expensive than most insurance co-pays.

Balance. We also have a class just focused on balance. We’ve treated many stroke patients who just a year prior were painting the town purple and now are confined to a chair. They’ve been told “this is as good as it gets.” I don’t think so. We put them in the pool. The water stimulates both legs to move, creating activity in both sides of the brain. Through the exercise, their core is strengthened and their sense of control and independence is restored.

One-on-ones. I also see folks on a one-on-one basis. Maybe they are terrified of the water or just want some council regarding sleep, thoughts, exercise or food. Again, we make this affordable for the patient but cost-effective for us, viewing the one-on-one sessions as an opportunity to add value to our community.

Chronic pain affects up to 85% of older adults and can cause depression, anxiety, and social isolation.  As caregivers to this group, our collective goals are the same: to help them stay comfortable, healthy and independent longer. This is achieved through a balanced approach that includes exercise.

Helping our seniors to the best extent possible may require taking a few “risks” involving new technology and equipment, but if we put the right things out into the marketplace with the intent to help, the risk becomes a reward— for our community, our patients and our facility.

Barb Cacia is a personal trainer and health and wellness educator specializing in chronic health conditions. She developed “The Care and Management of Fibromyalgia,” a comprehensive program helping people address their FMS with the goal of returning to a satisfying lifestyle. Barb coordinates HealthyYou, an employee wellness program for Heritage Christian Services and facilitates a variety of group and individualized wellness programs at the Pieters Family Life Center in Rochester, NY.