Tai Chi can help with the symptoms of osteoarthritis – at least as much as standard physical therapy and sometimes more – according to healthcare professionals who presented their research at the Annual American College of Rheumatology Meeting (2015) in San Francisco last month.
Osteoarthritis, sometimes known as “wear and tear” arthritis is a condition that tends to occur more with age, and happens when the cartilage that normally protects the joints becomes thinner and worn. This can cause pain and stiffness in the joints, especially the knees, hips, spine and fingers. A recent study carried out by Dr Chenchen Wang from Tufts University School of Medicine has compared Tai Chi to physical therapy in knee osteoarthritis.
Dr Wang and her team chose 204 people with knee osteoarthritis who had problems with knee pain and stiffness as well as X-ray changes in the knee, and divided them into 2 groups. One group completed 12 weeks of traditional Yang-style Tai Chi twice a week which included a warm-up, meditation with Tai Chi movement, breathing techniques and relaxation. The other group had a musculoskeletal examination, personalised physical therapy with goals and practice reminders for 6 weeks followed by 6 weeks of exercises at home.
Both groups had similar participants with an average age of 60 and all participants had been having pain from their arthritis for around 8 years. After 12 weeks and 52 weeks, both groups were compared. Both groups reduced the amount of pain medication that they needed to take, had less pain and stiffness and better function after their therapy, but the benefits were greatest in the group who had tried Tai Chi. These people also noticed a beneficial effect on their mood.
Tai Chi is an ancient form of martial arts developed in China at least 800 years ago. Although there are still versions of Tai Chi which use weapons, most people will be more familiar with the Tai Chi now performed as an exercise to improve health all around the world and will have seen images of individuals or groups of sometimes very elderly people in parks performing graceful movements and postures, often early in the morning.
There are many different types of Tai Chi; the most common are Yang and Wu which both use a series of slow and gentle flowing movements and postures, often balancing on one leg, that are performed without stopping.
Tai Chi has also been shown to improve flexibility and reduce pain in the hips, knees and ankles in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Tai Chi may also help with reducing stress and if done in a group can improve confidence and help reduce isolation.
Tai Chi can be safely performed at any age and is a very slow and low impact exercise which won’t put any stress on painful joints. No special equipment is needed and it can be done in a small space indoors or outdoors, alone or in a group. People with arthritis should seek medical advice prior to starting a new type of exercise and make sure that they find an experienced class or instructor.
As part of our self-management approach, Arthritis Action encourages people living with arthritis to do regular exercise which helps with the pain and stiffness associated with the condition. Our members are especially encouraged to carry out simple stretching exercises and join Tai Chi classes to help improve balance and mobility.