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Whirlpool Use in Physical Therapy

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Updated April 28, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

If you have an injury that causes a loss of normal functional mobility, you may be referred to physical therapy by your doctor. Your physical therapist will then begin the process of treating your injury and helping you return to normal function.

There are many different treatment options and modalities available in physical therapy. Some of these treatments are aimed at decreasing pain or swelling, and some are used to help improve strength, range of motion, or mobility. The whirlpool is one physical therapy treatment that you may encounter.

Goals of Whirlpool Therapy

The typical goals of whirlpool use in the physical therapy clinic include:
  • Decrease swelling
  • Control inflammation
  • Promote wound healing
  • Improve motion
  • Decrease pain
  • Decrease muscle spasm

If your physical therapist decides to treat your injury with whirlpool therapy, be sure to ask plenty of questions about your treatment. Make sure you understand what the goals of the treatment are and what you should expect from the whirlpool treatment.

How is a Whirlpool Used in Physical Therapy?

The whirlpool is a large tub that is filled with water. The body part that is to be treated is then placed in the tub of water, and a small motor agitates the water. While in the water, you can move your body part to help improve the motion around the injured area.

Most whirlpools that you will encounter in a physical therapy clinic are small, and only your arm or leg will be able to be placed in it. There are some whirlpools that are larger, and your entire body can be placed inside.

The temperature of the water in the whirlpool can be warm or cold, depending on the desired goal. Warm whirlpools can increase circulation, as the heat helps to open up small arteries in the body. Increased circulation can bring fresh blood, oxygen, and cells to the injured area, which can promote healing. The typical temperature of a warm whirlpool is 98-110 degrees Fahrenheit. Care should be taken to avoid burns. Be sure to talk with your physical therapist about your specific comfort level.

Cold whirlpools cause the arteries in the body to close, which can help to decrease circulation to the body part being treated. This is used to help manage inflammation and swelling in the injured body part. The temperature of a cold whirlpool is usually between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

A contrast bath treatment involves using a both warm whirlpool and cold whirlpool on the same body part during treatment. Your injured body part is repeatedly moved from the warm to cold water. You typically spend about 1 to 3 minutes in each bath, and a typical treatment lasts for 15 to 20 minutes. The theory of contrast bath use is to create rapid opening and closing of the arteries around the body part being treated. This creates a pumping effect in the body part, which helps to decrease swelling around the injured site.

A typical whirlpool treatment lasts for 10 to 15 minutes. Your physical therapist may have you perform certain exercises while your body part is in the whirlpool to help improve the range of motion in the part being treated.

Common Conditions That May be Treated with Whirlpool Therapy

Commmon injuries and conditions that may be treated with whirlpool therapy include:

Of course, this is just a short list of conditions that may benefit from whirlpool therapy. Just about any body part can be treated with whirlpool therapy, as long as it can be placed in the whirlpool.

Whirlpools can also be used in the treatment of wounds. If you have had surgery, you may have a surgical scar with scabbing on it. You may also have a wound that needs to be debrided, or cleaned. Your physical therapist may use the spinning action of the whirlpool to help clean out your incision or wound. Treatment after the whirlpool for wound care involves applying the correct dressing to ensure appropriate healing continues.

If you have suffered an injury and require physical therapy, you may have the opportunity to experience a whirlpool treatment. Remember that whirlpool therapy should be only one component to a rehabilitation program. Most research indicates that passive treatments, such as whirlpools, may be helpful, but exercise and mobility are best to help improve function. By working closely with your doctor and physical therapist, you can be sure to safely and quickly get back to normal mobility.

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