By Gerri Kobren The Baltimore Sun

Faced with a choice, Pat Butz decided 21 months ago not to take life sitting down.

“It was extraordinarily difficult for me to walk,” says the 47year-old Monkton, Md., resident, whose multiple sclerosis had progressed to the point that she was almost ready for a wheel chair.

Instead, she opted for therapy and exercise in a heated pool, where she is freed of gravity’s drag by the buoyancy of the water and loosened up by its warmth. These days, thanks to her three-times-a-week water workout, she is able to do strength training at the gym as well.

Physical therapy in water cannot make Butz’ MS go away, of course, and she still needs a cane when she walks on land. The important thing for her is that she is still able to walk at all – that she can move about on her own two feet when she goes sightseeing, that she can get up and dance with her husband.

“We were at a black tie affair a few months ago,” she says, “and I realized that if I had never come to therapy, I would not even be there.”

Warm water therapy is as old as the Romans, and as new as the spanking bright pools at the modern facilities that house sports medicine and rehab centers, such as the Owings Mills, Md., facility where Butz goes.

The principle behind it is the same as for a long soak in a warm tub: It gets the kinks out.

Moreover, the social, recreational and therapeutic options are almost unlimited. Those who simply want to maintain cardiovascular fitness while recovering from accident, illness or operation can don flotation vests and jog in deep water. Or they can make their muscles work as they walk at the shallow end.

Advances in medical care that led to longer life for the disabled also led to greater appreciation of the benefits of water. “As soon as the population of handicapped people began to increase in the ’50s and ’60s, (their) therapists found they could perform more and get better results in a heated pool,” says Clint Williams, a therapeutic recreation specialist at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center.

“In the water, people can perform a range of motion exercises they cannot do on land,” Williams says. “It’s almost like being on the moon – the water enables them to use whatever muscles they do have.”

Therapeutic heat – around 90 degrees – soothes, relaxes, makes you feel good, says Dr. Richard Schlesinger.

The combination of heat and buoyancy means patients do not hurt as much as when they move on dry land, Schlesinger says. Muscles do not clench in reflexive spasms, and patients begin to walk without the limp they have developed to alleviate their pain.

Reprinted from Sept. 1, 1991