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Study Could Give Stroke Survivors More Options for Physical Therapy

Two Ithaca College professors are examining whether aquatic therapy is as effective for stroke survivors as other, less accessible types of physical therapy.

Survivors of stroke often need physical therapy to regain the ability to walk and move freely. One of the most common forms of therapy used to accomplish that is body-weight-supported-treadmill training, which involves a patient walking on a treadmill while a harness supports some of their weight. However, because this requires specialized equipment and a team of physical therapists, it is not always feasible for all patients.

A participant in the study performs an aquatic therapy routine with Ithaca College student Nick Davis.


Assistant Professors Sarah Fishel and Chris McNamara are comparing treadmill training with aquatic therapy, where patients undergo training in shallow water. Because its main requirement is a pool, aquatic therapy may be more accessible for a greater number of stroke survivors.

Fishel and McNamara say that aquatic and treadmill training are more similar than different. For example, both provide body weight support. If the results of each prove to be similar as well, it would give both therapists and patients more choice when it comes to their therapy.

“An aquatic environment might be more accessible, and might be more preferred for some people,” said Fishel.

There is significant scientific evidence showing that treadmill training can improve walking performance and balance for stroke survivors, in addition to decreasing their risk of falling. Aquatic therapy has shown positive results in clinical settings, but there are not many studies demonstrating its effectiveness, and none comparing it directly with treadmill training.

“My clinical practice has demonstrated that there are just many, many opportunities for exercise and improvement and challenge in the aquatic environment,” said McNamara. “It’s just a matter of scientifically proving what we’ve seen clinically.”

To compare the two therapies, Fishel and McNamara have designed a study that randomly places stroke survivors in one of three programs: treadmill training, aquatic therapy or a combination of the two. Participants undergo one month of treatment, followed by evaluations to measure what progress has been made.

The pair were awarded a $2,500 grant by the American Physical Therapy Association to support the study. The grant funds reimbursements for patient travel and provides each patient with up to $150 for their participation.

Fishel and McNamara are currently accepting participants in the study. Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, have had a stroke more than six months ago, and be cleared for exercise by a physician. Those interested can contact Fishel at sfishel@ithaca.edu or (607) 274-5824.