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Pool Therapy Exercise:  Beneficial and Affordable

by Joy E. Daniels

I had to put a small pool in my basement, because exercising in water keeps my fibromyalgia symptoms under control.  If you suffer with severe daily pain, I want to encourage you that exercising in a home pool can be done.  It doesn’t have to cost tens of thousands of dollars or be located in a luxurious add-on room.  (However, if you don’t have a basement, skip to the “Exercising in Water” section below and consider joining a YMCA.)

Using a Physical Therapy Pool

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia two years after an auto accident.  My bruises and fractures had healed, but my pain persisted and was increasing.  Until my doctor mentioned it, I had never heard of fibromyalgia.  When I read about night attacks, roaming pain, brain fog and fatigue, I was relieved that someone understood – and then I was shocked that I might have to live with this. I was sent to a physical therapy pool.

That 14-foot pool was amazing.  The water was 93 degrees, and you could walk against a strong current.  I was given six exercises, and over time I invented a dozen more.  After several weeks, I noticed I was getting back some gracefulness.  This was encouraging, because I had become clumsy and weak since my accident.  Then I began to get stronger – I could now open a door with one hand.  I could pass heavy plates at holiday meals.  Eventually, I noticed I was living with less pain and beginning to feel more normal.  I loved that pool – unfortunately, buying it would cost $80,000.

Doing Without Pool Exercise

After a half-year of encouraging improvement, I took an experimental break from pool therapy.  What a bad idea!  Within three months, my symptoms drove me back to the therapy pool.  I could see I might have to do this forever.

After six more months of pool exercising, however, I had a new problem.  My skin was breaking out in 20 or 30 places.  Initially, I did not connect the skin rash to the pool, because I had been using it for over a year without a problem.  Eventually, though, I found evidence that “long-term use” of a chlorinated pool did cause some people to have skin rash.  This pool was heavily chlorinated, and I began to see a connection:  New skin rash would appear after pool exercise, would start to heal over the weekend, and would get worse again after resuming the exercises.  I had to stop using that pool.

The next nine months were spent tangling with my auto insurer.  They had been paying for the pool therapy and resisted buying me a non-chlorine home pool.  I spent months complying with their requests, being tested by specialists, etc. – all the while having no access to pool exercise.

I keep a daily pain diary, and my statistics during that period were terrible.  There was not a single day without a significant amount of pain.  My sleep was interrupted 165 out of 273 nights, adding to my fatigue, discouragement, and inability to think clearly.

During this time, I took many other steps to try to offset these symptoms.  I bought a well-reviewed, up-to-date book on fibromyalgia, made a list of its recommendations, and began to implement them.  I went to a chiropractor.  I began taking several dietary supplements, ate differently, and quit smoking.  I wore compression wraps and heating pads to bed and took pain medication to maximize sleep.  I stretched and got massages.  None of these things helped in any significant way.  (I do, however, think these behaviors are helpful, once severe pain and sleeplessness are under control.)

Buying and Installing My Own Pool

At the end of nine months, I got a final “no” from my insurance company, since no one could prove to their satisfaction that chlorine was causing my skin rash.  I realized the only way to prove this was to buy my own pool.  I picked out a 10-foot round, 52-inch high pool at these costs:

  • Pool, pump, skimmer, ladder, two cartridge filters, solar cover ($1,000)

  • Non-chlorine water treatment system ($900).

  • Heater ($400)

  • Electrical work ($600)

  • Installation ($500)

  • Dehumidifier and humidistat ($170).

Using this pool 4-5 times per week is now my routine, and I don’t have skin rash.  I use the vacuum pole to roll up the solar cover and lay it on the floor.  I climb the ladder, ducking to avoid the ceiling.  After 45 minutes, I dry off with a clean rag towel.  Once the solar cover has been rolled back over the top of the pool, there is water on the floor, and I drag the towel around to wipe it up.  Any remaining drips quickly dry from the dehumidifier.  The whole process takes one hour.

Every week I pull out the cartridge filter and put in the alternate filter, and I take a water sample to perform a pH and a copper test.  Every two weeks, I spend one hour soaking both filters in muriatic acid and another hour in trisodium phosphate.

Exercising in Water

My pool has deep, warm water, but it does not have a high current.  Instead, I wear “aqua fins” – velcro-strapped rubber/plastic appendages to increase water resistance.  I wear eight in all – two on each wrist and ankle.  And I use a “noodle” water toy for a float-and-kick exercise.  If you cannot purchase an in-home pool and you can tolerate chlorine, these items can be used in a YMCA.

I have 20 exercises that involve pulling and pushing limbs in various directions.  For example:

  • Arms stretched outward at sides, pull together in front of you, then back out

  • Arms stretched outward at sides, pull downward to thighs, then back up

  • Elbows in, wave arms down and up (like flying)

  • Braced against ladder, kick legs backward

  • Leaning against ladder, kick legs forward

  • Deep-water climbing (reach arms forward, pull backward – like treading water)

Staying motivated after two years is not too much of a problem, because if I stop exercising for a few days, I begin to suffer.  However, discipline needs to be kept as fun and interesting as possible.

  • I listen to an all-news TV channel or music while exercising.

  • I increase repetitions over time.  I began with 10 of each and am now up to 40 for most exercises.  Those that are easier I do for 70 or 100 counts.

  • I vary the order.  Sometimes I do all arm exercises until they are exhausted, and then work on legs.  Other times, I mix these to avoid hurting myself.

  • I improve my technique.  At first, it’s a big effort to flop one sore arm outward.  Gradually, you try to straighten the arm and do the exercise gracefully.  These days, I am tightening/stretching out arms and legs to give them even more challenge.

I am thankful for this pool (my auto insurer eventually reimbursed me for it).  Pool therapy is doctor-prescribed and is the foundation of my care.  I still need to live very carefully, eat right, sleep well, and not overdo physical tasks.  Those things are important, but pool therapy has made the most impact.