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Aquatic therapy helping to transform the lives of children with long-term conditions

By 10th February 2023No Comments

Just a year ago, 19-month-old Oakley was unable to move his body or lift up his head, but thanks to the aquatic therapy he is receiving from Sirona care & health, he can now sit by himself, breathe without help and feed himself.

Oakley was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) type 1 which causes very weak and floppy limbs; problems with moving, eating, breathing and swallowing; and he was also unable to raise his head or sit without support. Many children with the condition are not expected to live past the age of two.

Oakley received gene therapy at 14 weeks which helps to prevent the deterioration caused by SMA. This treatment, along with regular physiotherapy, has enabled him to make dramatic progress. 

His mum Amy Moffatt said: “Now he’s had gene therapy, it’s about giving him the opportunity to get as strong as possible. We do up to three hours of physiotherapy a day, and aquatic therapy once a week. These therapies are a huge part of his life.

“Working to increase the muscle strength of his arms, legs, neck and trunk, learning how to move from one position to another, learning how to sit and stand cannot be taken for granted. The gene therapy has been the key to unlocking this opportunity; physiotherapy and aquatic therapy are now at the core of optimising the opportunity that he has been given.

“He couldn’t move his body this time last year. In April last year, he started to sit up. He’s now got head control, he’s able to breathe without any major interventions and he’s eating orally, which is very rare.

“The fact he’s able to go on and potentially live close to a normal life is only possible through interventions like physiotherapy and aquatic therapy. All these therapies combined are giving Oakley an opportunity to have a life nobody thought he would have which is incredible.”

Amy and Oakley Moffatt in Sirona’s Hydrotherapy Pool.

Oakley attends aquatic therapy sessions at Sirona’s hydrotherapy unit in Soundwell, Bristol. Anna Oldfield, Specialist Children’s Physiotherapist, helps Oakley to improve his mobility and strength through fun water-based activities and she also shares techniques with his mum so she can do the exercises with Oakley herself.

Amy said: “For Oakley and other children who have complex needs and disabilities, aquatic therapy gives their bodies the chance to move in water the way they wouldn’t be able to on land. It’s so beneficial, especially if they spend a lot of time in a wheelchair. It can prevent the onset of so many other health conditions.

“Oakley is at high risk of developing scoliosis so aquatic therapy reduces the risk of him developing this. We are seeing a change in him every week. Small gains over a long period of time will make a huge difference. Oakley wouldn’t be able to do the things he can now if it wasn’t for aquatic therapy and physiotherapy.

“Aquatic therapy has played such a pivotal part in Oakley’s development since his gene therapy last year. We’re incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful community team and for Oakley to have access to regular therapy. He wouldn’t be making these life transforming developments without it.”

Jenson Mckechnie

Jenson and Lettie Mckechnie aged 11 and five, also have SMA and benefit hugely from aquatic therapy. They cannot stand or walk un-aided and find it hard to do everyday activities such as getting dressed, opening and holding objects and going to the toilet. They require adult help with everything they do.

Jenson and Lettie access the pool with a hoist and the aquatic therapy helps to strengthen their muscles and improve their mobility. Their mum, Zoe Mckechnie said: “Hydrotherapy pools are so important, and they really enjoy coming. It loosens their muscles a little and makes them feel freer. It’s another form of therapy to make things better for them. We are really grateful for the aquatic therapy sessions and Anna and staff at the pool are always so helpful, my children love getting into the water and they say Anna is fun.”

Jenson and Lettie have also been receiving a treatment called Nusinersen which is given by lumbar puncture every four months. This is helping to make their muscles stronger and preventing deterioration.

Anna Oldfield, Specialist Children’s Physiotherapist, said: “Aquatic therapy can have a huge impact on children like Jenson – any active movement on land is very difficult and effortful for him. He often needs adult assistance or support of specialist equipment.

“In aquatic therapy sessions, he can move more independently and freely. He can make choices about how and where he moves, as well as work on muscle strengthening, joint mobility and breathing exercises. The buoyancy and hydrostatic pressure mean his joint are off-loaded and his body weight supported – he can experience movement free of equipment, adult handling and gravity.”

Maks, aged three, has cerebral palsy and hemiplegia and was unable to use the right side of his body when he was born. He started having physiotherapy and aquatic therapy and he can now walk and move his right side.

His mum Monika Lucas said: “When he was born, he couldn’t move anything on his right side. The hospital said he may never walk or feed himself. But physiotherapy and aquatic therapy have helped him to learn how to do things.

“He wears a splint and doesn’t use his right hand, but when he’s doing aquatic therapy, he changes completely. It enables him to relax his hand and legs in the water. He went from not being able to move or having any balance to being in a normal nursery, it’s amazing. The impact it’s had on him is so wonderful.”

Aquatic therapy provides physical and mental health benefits to children and adults with a range of conditions and disabilities including muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, chronic pain, learning disabilities and neurological conditions.

The therapy helps by reducing muscle spasticity, reducing pain and swelling, enabling new skills to be learnt, it makes movements easier, and enhances fitness and wellbeing. It also helps people to maintain essential skills such as standing, balancing and walking. Aquatic therapy can have a huge impact on a person’s function and level of disability and help to prevent future health conditions and surgeries.

Neil Gokani, head of service for Children’s Physiotherapy at Sirona, said: “We have such a wonderful hydrotherapy facility here in Sirona that benefits children from across Bristol North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. It has been incredibly rewarding to see children and their families benefit from working toward their therapy goals and managing their long-term conditions within the hydrotherapy pool.

“Hearing from the parents about how they feel empowered to manage their children’s physiotherapy with support of physiotherapists during aquatic therapy sessions and how they are able to support their child’s health and wellbeing significantly, really highlights to me how important aquatic physiotherapy treatment is. Parents have discussed the huge benefits their children have gained from attending aquatic therapy and how this has a positive impact on their wellbeing.

“Access to the hydrotherapy pool in Sirona has really helped to reduce waiting lists in children’s physiotherapy in the wake of the pandemic and I am grateful that local people have access to our fantastic facility. The team of children’s physiotherapy staff and the staff at Soundwell pool are extremely passionate about the pool and the difference it makes to children’s lives, which is wonderful to witness.”