In a study of people with multiple sclerosis (MS), twice-weekly sessions of Ai-Chi exercise in a swimming pool, for a total of 20 weeks, resulted in a significant and clinically relevant decrease in pain intensity, among other benefits.

The study, “Hydrotherapy for the Treatment of Pain in People with Multiple Sclerosis: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” involved 73 people diagnosed with MS, all of whom reported a pain score greater than 4 on a visual analog scale. These subjects were randomly assigned to either a control group or an experimental group for the 20-week intervention period.

Subjects in the experimental group received 40 sessions of Ai-Chi exercise in a swimming pool, twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays. The same physiotherapist led each Ai-Chi session, consisting of 16 movements performed in shoulder-depth water.

“Ai-Chi exercises … use a combination of deep breathing and slow, broad movements of the arms, legs and torso,” state the study’s authors, “to work on balance, strength, relaxation, flexibility and breathing.”

Subjects in the control group participated in 40 sessions of abdominal breathing and contraction-relaxation exercises, twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Both groups were evaluated at baseline, immediately after the 20-week intervention period, as well as four weeks and 10 weeks following the 20-week intervention period. The outcome measures included pain, spasm, fatigue and depression.

Results of the research revealed a significant reduction in pain among subjects in the experimental group immediately after the 20-week intervention period came to a close, as compared to the pain scores for these same subjects at baseline. Significant improvements also were observed for spasm, fatigue, disability and autonomy.

“The experimental group showed a significant reduction in pain [visual analog scale] score versus baseline, with a 50 percent reduction in pain levels,” state the study’s authors. “The pain continued to be significantly lower versus baseline at weeks 24 and 30.”

Subjects in the control group showed no significant differences in pain scores, compared to baseline, at any of the three assessment times.

“A 20-week Ai-Chi aquatic exercise program produces a significant pain reduction in MS patients that lasts for 10 weeks after the end of the program,” state the study’s authors. “It also improves other MS-related symptoms, including disability, depression and fatigue.

“These effects of the Ai-Chi aquatic program were superior to those of an equivalent exercise program in a therapy room,” they conclude.

Authors: Adelaida María Castro-Sánchez, Guillermo A. Matarán-Peñarrocha, Immaculada Lara-Palomo, Manuel Saavedra-Hernández, Manuel Arroyo-Morales and Carmen Moreno-Lorenzo.

Sources: Department of Nursing and Physical Therapy, University of Almeria, Granada, Spain; Health District of Granada, Andalusian Health Service, Granada, Spain; Department of Physical Therapy, University of Granada, Spain. Originally published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Volume 2012.