The objective of this study was to examine the effectiveness of aquatic exercise in the management of musculoskeletal conditions. A systematic review was conducted using Ovid MEDLINE, CINAHL, EMBASE, and The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials from earliest record to May 2013. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-randomized controlled trials evaluating aquatic exercise for adults with musculoskeletal conditions compared to no exercise or land-based exercise. Outcomes of interest were pain, physical function and quality of life. The electronic search identified 1199 potential studies. Of these, 1136 studies were excluded based on title and abstract. A further 36 studies were excluded after full text review and the remaining 26 studies were included in this review. Two reviewers independently extracted demographic data and intervention characteristics from included trials. Outcome data including mean scores and SDs were also extracted. The Physiotherapy Evidence Database (PEDro) scale identified 20 studies with high methodological quality (PEDro score ≥6). Compared to no exercise, aquatic exercise achieved moderate improvements in pain (SMD -0.37, 95% CI -0.56 to -0.18), physical function (SMD 0.32, 95% CI 0.13 to 0.51) and quality of life (SMD 0.39, 95% CI 0.06 to 0.73). No significant differences were observed between the effects of aquatic and land-based exercise on pain (SMD -0.11, 95% CI -0.27 to 0.04), physical function (SMD -0.03, 95% CI -0.19 to 0.12) or quality of life (SMD -0.10, 95% CI -0.29 to 0.09).
The evidence suggests that aquatic exercise has moderate beneficial effects on pain, physical function and quality of life in adults with musculoskeletal conditions. These benefits seem to be comparable across conditions and with those achieved with land-based exercise. Further research is needed to understand the characteristics of aquatic exercise programs that offer the most benefit