All aquatic exercise sessions were performed in a sports medicine clinic using an underwater treadmill (HydroWorx 2000, Middletown, PA, USA) with no shoes at a water depth equal to the xiphoid process. The temperature of the water was 30° C and the air temperature was 24° C. All treadmill adjustments during the protocol were administered by the same research assistant who also gave verbal encouragement during the HIT phase of each session. A description of the dependent measures used in the study follows.
Knee Injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score
The Knee Injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score (KOOS) is a self-completed questionnaire to assess participant's opinion regarding their primary joint symptoms and associated problems (35). Participants completed the KOOS questionnaire upon arrival to the clinic. Key outcomes from the questionnaire included measures of joint pain, other symptoms (SPT), function in daily living (ADL), function in sport and recreation (SAR) and knee-related quality of life (QOL). Generally, test-retest reliability is high for the KOOS subscales (pain Intraclass Correlation Coefficient = 0.85–0.93) (10). We analyzed the questionnaire using the scoring guide and Microsoft Excel files that are freely available at www.koos.nu. For the present study, scores were computed for pretests and posttest evaluations.
Pain Scale Assessment
Participant's perception of immediate and usual joint pain was assessed using a continuous visual analog scale described previously (11). The scale was 12 cm in length, with the left end of the scale labeled “no pain” and the right end labeled “very severe pain.” The pain scales were analyzed by measuring the distance from the left of the scale to the vertical mark drawn by each subject. For the immediate pain scale, all pre-exercise pain scores were averaged and all post-exercise pain scores were averaged, to yield a single mean pain score before and after each exercise bout. For the usual pain scale, all pretest and posttest values were averaged separately to yield a pain score to represent average pain felt the week before assessment. Visual analog scales, such as the one used in this study, are reported to be reliable assessments of pain perceptions and are more precise than ordinal scales that rank responses (16).
Computerized Dynamic Posturography
After participants completed the questionnaires, they performed standardized protocols for balance and motor function using the SMART EquiTest system (NeuroCom, a division of Natus, Clackamas, OR, USA). Specifically, participants were objectively assessed using the sensory organization test (SOT), motor control test (MCT), and limits of stability test (LOS). For balance, this system is arguably the gold standard (43) and has been evaluated extensively with good reliability (12,14,22). In-depth descriptions of the test protocols and measures have been described previously (23,41). Table 3 provides a brief description of each test and the specific measures used in the present study.
Function and Mobility
Participants performed standardized protocols for a sit-to-stand test (STS), forward lunge test (FLT), and 10-m walk test. The STS and FLT were assessed during pretest and posttest evaluations using the Balance Master System and manufacturer guidelines (NeuroCom). A description of the testing procedures is in Table 3. The 10-m walk test was assessed by having participants walk at a “comfortable speed” over a flat straight walkway. Walking speed is one of the most widely accepted measures of lower limb recovery (34), and test-retest reliability of this measure has revealed ICCs of 0.94 (37). The time average of 3 walking trials for pretests and posttest evaluation was used for subsequent statistical analyses.
The independent variable in this study was the time variable, and the dependent variables were KOOS scores, visual analog pain scores, computerized dynamic posturography (CDP) scores, function, and mobility scores. Statistical analyses were conducted using SPSS version 20 (IBM Corp., Somers, NY, USA).
All data were first pre-analyzed for violations of normalcy using the Shapiro-Wilk test, which revealed that the normality assumption was met for all data sets (p = 0.12–0.98). Repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA) was then used to assess the effect of time (pretest 1, pretest 2, and posttest) on each dependent variable. Follow-up multiple comparisons (LSD) were conducted when necessary using a Holm's corrected alpha level of 0.05 to determine significance for all tests. Effect sizes were also quantified to appreciate the meaningfulness of any statistical differences in the results, and Cohen's (9) convention for ES interpretation was used (<0.41 = small, 0.41–0.70 = medium, and >0.70 = large). Any unsolicited comments about the participants' perception of the exercise training, including any adverse effects, were recorded.
All participants (n = 18) underwent the 6-week training program as planned (100% exercise adherence). Accordingly, 18 participants were included in the statistical analyses. The results of the ANOVA tests were significant for each dependent measure (p = 0.01–0.001). Results of the multiple comparisons revealed that there were no differences between pretest 1 and pretest 2 (p = 0.10–0.96), with the exception of 2 LOS measures. The LOS maximal and endpoint excursion values for pretest 2 were 7 and 9% greater than pretest 1 values, respectively (p = 0.02–0.007; ES = 0.39–0.45). Comparisons between pretest 2 and posttest follow.
Knee Injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score
All subscales were different between pretest 2 and posttest (p = 0.03–0.005). Pain, SPT, ADL, SAR, and QOL scores were 30–49% greater at posttest than pretest 2 (ES = 0.46–0.80) (Figure 2).
Pain Scale Assessment
Usual pain values for pretest 2 and posttest were significantly different (p = 0.001). That is, usual pain values for the posttest were 213% lower than pretest 2 (ES = 0.64). Immediate pain scores were 56% lower after the exercise bout compared with before exercise commenced (p = 0.001; ES = 1.39) (Table 4).
Computerized Dynamic Posturography Assessments
The SOT equilibrium and strategy scores for the posttest were 10 and 2.5% greater, respectively, than pretest 2 scores (p = 0.03–0.008; ES = 0.22–0.64), whereas MCT latency scores decreased by 4% (p = 0.006; ES = 0.75). For the LOS test, all posttest values were greater than pretest 2 values (p = 0.04–0.01; ES = 0.50–0.54) except for the LOS directional score (p = 0.64) (Table 4).
Function and Mobility
For the STS test, weight transfer and rising index scores improved from pretest 2 (p = 0.02–0.007; ES = 0.20–0.89) and FLT contact scores for both legs during posttest were 53–59% less than pretest 2 (p = 0.05–0.004; ES = 0.56–0.73). Regarding the 10-m walk test, times were 10% lower for posttest than pretest 2 (p = 0.008; ES = 0.58) (Table 4).
This study quantified the effectiveness of a 6-week aquatic treadmill exercise program in patients with OA. The majority of all outcome measures improved with medium to large ES after the 6-week exercise period, which supports the research hypothesis. The improvements are likely attributable to the aquatic exercise intervention because the same group displayed no improvements after a control period, with the exception of LOS excursions that may reflect a learning effect for this measure. The present study extends previous work examining acute effects of aquatic treadmill exercise in patients with OA (11,36).
The self-completed KOOS questionnaire revealed pretest pain levels (Figure 2; 52–61) were considerably worse than normative levels (85–88) for healthy age and gender-matched controls (33). In contrast, posttest values improved (≈80) and closely matched normative values for people without OA (33), suggesting that the aquatic treadmill exercise in this study strongly influenced participants' perception of pain and other subscale components, such as function in daily living and function in sport and recreation. To put these values into perspective, a recent review for the management of OA reported that “best evidence” ES for reducing joint pain with exercise was 0.52 (44). The ES for the KOOS pain subscale in the present study was 0.74.
Further evidence that the aquatic treadmill exercise influenced participants' perception of joint pain is revealed in the immediate and usual pain scale results. These scores were substantially lower after each exercise session (ES = 1.39) and after 6 weeks of training (ES = 0.64). This observation is consistent with previous pain scale results for patients with OA who completed aquatic treadmill exercise (11,36) and aquatic calisthenics (42). Moreover, an original finding of the present study was that high-intensity gait intervals in an aquatic environment (RPE ≈ 18, equivalent to 90% V[Combining Dot Above]O2max) did not exacerbate joint pain, but in fact provided joint pain relief in patients with OA.
One possible benefit of joint pain relief is improved balance (20), although some researchers have suggested otherwise (4). The present study observed that CDP balance measures, such as the SOT composite score, were improved after the 6-week training program (Table 4). Healthy age-matched controls often score 68 on the SOT (30), whereas pretest scores for the patients with OA in the present study were on average 64. This pretest score provides further support to the observation that patients with OA display inferior balance compared with age-matched controls (29). A clinically relevant observation of the present study was that SOT scores after the 6-week aquatic treadmill exercise period improved (74; ES = 0.63) and exceeded normative values (30).
Aside from measures of static balance, motor function scores also improved after the aquatic training. For instance, the MCT latency score decreased after the 6-week exercise period, suggesting improved motor control responses to a sudden unexpected perturbation. A lower latency score may lead to improved recovery from sudden slips to avoid possible falls (24). From a functional and mobility standpoint, the participants with OA displayed an improved ability to stand from a seated position, lunge more quickly on 1 leg, and walk 10 m with greater speed (Table 4; gait times/10 m). For example, before training, the participants with OA displayed considerably lower gait speeds than normative data (1.07–1.16 vs. 1.29 m·s−1) (6). After the aquatic treadmill training, participants' gait speed was nearly identical to normative values for people without OA (1.28 m·s−1), suggesting that mobility was positively affected in patients with OA.
The mechanisms for decreased pain and improved balance and function in this study are probably multifaceted (3) but most certainly related to muscle strength gains as evidenced in the reduced contact times for the FLT and the rising index in the STS. In support of this contention, Messier et al. (29) observed that greater lower extremity muscle strength of adults with chronic knee pain was associated with improved balance. Fransen et al. (15) observed that greater lower extremity strength was also associated with greater gait speed. Aquatic treadmill exercise may be an effective training mode to improve lower extremity strength in patients with OA, given that joint loads are reduced (1) and exercise intensities can be doubled for a given walking speed using changes in water jet intensities (8).
Ideally, this current study would have included a separate control group that performed a matched dose HIT program on a land treadmill. However, it was evident from pilot testing that participants with OA symptoms, such as those displayed by participants in the current study, would not have been able to reach the high exercise intensities of the training program on a land treadmill because of load-elicited pain. Although not specific to walking or balance training, control participants might have been able to perform stationary cycling at high exercise intensities because it is a partial weight bearing mode of exercise (27).
Another option for a control group would be to have participants complete a traditional aquatic exercise training program that includes shallow water walking, calisthenics, and other resistive exercises. However, as Bartels et al. (2) point out, these modes of aquatic exercise lack control over exercise intensity and prevent valid comparisons between treatment interventions. It should be noted that the magnitude of improvements in pain, balance, function, and mobility observed in the present study were generally greater than what has been observed after traditional land and aquatic exercise interventions (2), suggesting that the results of this research may be considered relevant and worthy of future investigations.
This study provides the practitioner an evidence-based protocol that seems to be effective at managing symptoms of OA and perhaps the comorbidities. For instance, participants displayed exceptional adherence to the exercise protocol reported in Figure 1 and none reported adverse effects of the exercise progression reported in Table 2, other than mild to moderate muscle fatigue and soreness in the lower extremity. These observations are quite remarkable considering the high exercise intensities used. No other land-based training, that the authors are aware of, has successfully implemented aerobic HIT in patients with OA. It may be that HIT on an aquatic treadmill was possible because the environment allowed for a reduced fear of falling, lower joint loads, and 3-dimensional support from hydrostatic pressure to maintain balance. Many of the participants provided unsolicited comments that supported these contentions. Finally, because HIT requires less exercise time to achieve the same health benefits as traditional training, HIT on an aquatic treadmill may be a time-efficient exercise strategy to manage symptoms of OA during the early phases of exercise therapy. It would be expected that patients would eventually progress to a land-based exercise program; however, the time to transition is not well understood (2) and likely depends on the individual and their tolerance for greater joint loads. Other research using HIT on land treadmills in heart failure patients (40) also reported good exercise adherence and improved cardiovascular health after training interventions lasting 12 weeks. This observation, along with results of the current study, suggests that people with OA may use HIT on an aquatic treadmill for intervention periods lasting longer than the 6 weeks used in the current study with no adverse effects. Indeed, future research will need to test this contention.
In conclusion, this study observed that patients with OA display reduced joint pain and improved balance, function, and mobility after participating in a 6-week aquatic treadmill exercise program that incorporated a balance and HIT training component. The same benefits were not observed after a non-exercise control period. Adherence to the exercise was exceptional and no participants reported adverse effects, suggesting that aquatic treadmill exercise that incorporates high-intensity intervals is well tolerated by patients with OA and seems to be effective at managing symptoms of OA.
This study was supported by grants from the National Swimming Pool Foundation. The authors declare no conflicts of interest associated with this research. Results of the present study do not constitute endorsement of the product by the authors or the National Strength and Conditioning Association. The authors would like to acknowledge the support of Ashley Szpindor, Scott Hadley, Talin Louder, and Matt Baldwin for their technical assistance and general assistance.
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Keywords:Copyright © 2014 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.
rehabilitation; hydrotherapy; aquatic exercise