Tai chi, an ancient martial art from China, is going mainstream in the U.S., as a way to help people cope with osteoarthritis.
There are several types of tai chi, but all are a series of precise movements, one flowing into the next, that improve balance and strength. It is also referred to as a type of moving meditation that promotes calm and inner stillness.
A recent study in the Journal of Physiotherapy assigned 40 patients with arthritis, average age 65, to two groups: one did Tai Chi twice a week for an hour, and the other received wellness education and stretching twice a week. After 12 weeks, the group practicing tai chi showed reduced pain and improved physical function, self-efficacy (belief in your capabilities), depression and health-related quality of life compared to the control group. The assessments were repeated at 24 and 48 weeks.
Many other studies, most of them small scale, have shown that people who do tai chi have improved balance, flexibility and even cardiovascular function.
The best way to learn tai chi is in a class, rather than with a DVD, so that the instructor can make sure you're doing the poses correctly. Once you are familiar with the form, tai chi has many advantages:
- You can practice it at home, at work or on vacation, alone or with others
- The movements are low-impact and the risk of injury is very low
- It does not involve medication
- It does not require special equipment, shoes or clothing
- It is free (other than paying for classes)
- It requires little space, although many enjoy practicing it outdoors in nature
A National Public Health Agenda for Osteoarthritis 2010, issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arthritis Foundation endorses the potential benefits of tai chi, saying:
The efficacy of Tai Chi, the mind/body approach most studied, has been mixed but those studies yielding favorable results demonstrated that Tai Chi was associated with meaningful improvements in pain and physical function comparable ...to other common self-management approaches such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) use and exercise.
We must incorporate balance training, Tai Chi and other forms of dynamic exercise into physical activity programs for older adults with [osteoarthritis].
In addition, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, is supporting research into tai chi's potential benefits for many conditions, including osteoarthritis of the knee.