How Tai Chi – a Form of Martial Art can Help in Arthritis

Arthritis is a serious illness characterized by joint pain, stiffness and inflammation. It causes severe discomfort and mental stress to the patients due to restricted movement and pain. It could be caused by numerous factors and thus is widespread among individuals all over the globe. What is worse is that we can only relive the disease symptom and cannot cure it completely. As a result patients usually seek other means to provide relief from stiffened shoulders, creaking hip joints and twinging knees. One of the remedies available from ancient China is Tai Chi. Originally designed as a form of self-defence this form of martial art has shown tremendous promise for the patients with arthritis.

What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is a form of martial art that has its roots thousands of year back in ancient China. The term “tai-chi” is a short form of “tai chi chuan” which means “internal martial art” or “supreme ultimate fist”. It is sometimes also known as “taijiquan” or “taiji”. It is a mind-body practise which consists of slow and gentle body movements with deep breathing. Less is known about its complete history as various different accounts are available.

But as per a popular legend it was found by a Taoist monk named Chang San-Feng. He developed it as a set of 13 exercises which imitate the movements of animals. It was historically used as a martial art for self-defence. But later it got modified to render various different health benefits .

How does it help my arthritis?

Tai Chi is a multi-component exercise which is known for its multiple health benefits. It enhances muscular strength, physical function, body balance and posture. There is scientific evidence that proves that Tai Chi has positive effects in treating cardiovascular diseases, Parkinson’s, breast cancer, HIV infection, stroke, hypertension, and sleep disorder. It also reduces stress, depression and anxiety. It is highly recommended for patients with arthritis. In fact it can be used as an alternative therapy for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia  .

A survey conducted in 2007 showed that 2.3 million Americans practice Tai Chi. This survey revealed many health benefits of Tai Chi including: improved muscle strength, flexibility and co-ordination, decreased risk of falls and improved balance, ease in muscle pain and body stiffness, improved sleep and a feeling of overall well-being. These factors account for the efficacy of tai chi in treating symptoms of arthritis. 

Tai chi incorporates exercises which improve muscle strength, flexibility and fitness. Muscle strength is needed for protecting and supporting the joints and maintaining their normal function thus benefitting patients with arthritis. Many patients with arthritis suffer from impaired physical function and joint stiffness. Tai chi incorporates exercises which improve body flexibility which enable such patients to move freely and facilitates better circulation of blood and body fluids . Tai Chi for Arthritis

One of the most significant effect of tai chi is that it focuses on weight transference and body balance exercises. This is of utmost importance amongst elderly patients who are more prone to falling due to decrease in proprioception (the sense of one’s body position in space). Tai chi helps in training this sense and strengthening muscles and ligaments .

Aerobic conditioning is yet another benefit of Tai chi. With altered speed and size of movements during tai chi one can avail various aerobic benefits from this form of exercise.

Finally, tai chi is an effective way to relax the mind and thus reduce stress. It is a mind-body practise that requires the patient to concentrate on one’s posture and body movement. Owing to this it helps to improve concentration and reduces stress and depression. Stress is a common occurrence among arthritic patients and tai chi helps relieve this stress .

What does science say about the benefits of Tai Chi?

Some studies have been conducted to prove the benefits of Tai Chi in various different arthritic conditions and all showed promising results. One such study assessed the overall health condition of 102 elderly adults with arthritis after a 16 week Tai Chi intervention. All the participants were encouraged to have 2 mild-intensity sessions lasting for 120 minutes for a period of 16 weeks.

Results proved that regular Tai chi sessions helped improve the grip strength, arm curl, and 30-second chair stand by a significant degree among the patients. The physical functioning, general health, vitality and mental health of the patients also improved. Thus tai chi proved to be a valuable mode of exercise among elderlies with arthritis .

In 2013 a meta-analysis was performed to test the efficacy of Tai chi on pain, stiffness and joint function among patients with osteoarthritis. This analysis tested the literature available so far on the basis of their efficacy, study design and data interpretation techniques. As a result a total of 7 randomised trials with 348 patients were selected for this study. This analysis did prove that a 12 week tai chi session beneficial effects in patients with osteoarthritis as it improved disease symptoms by a considerable amount. However it was mentioned that in order to avoid potential biases large scale trials must be performed in future .

The relevance of Tai Chi has also been tested in cases of rheumatoid arthritis. One such study aimed to analyse the psychosocial effects of Tai Chi among patients with rheumatism. This was a qualitative study which took into account the personal perception of well-being of the patients to draw conclusive results. It included 19 participants who were interviewed during the course of 12 week Tai Chi therapy. Results showed that Tai Chi increased the awareness, self-esteem, motivation and self-efficacy of the patients.

It was also found to reduce anxiety and depression . Thus this study concluded that Tai chi is a cost effective method to provide physical and mental relief from symptoms of Rheumatoid arthritis among the patients.

Another research published in New England Journal of Medicine proved the efficacy of Tai Chi in relieving symptoms of fibromyalgia. It also found that tai chi could be recommended for patients suffering from pain in the lower back, ankylosing spondylitis and inflammatory disease of the spine . 

As a matter of fact Tai Chi is crucial in enhancing body strength. A Japanese study recruited 113 old individuals and assigned them to different exercise regimens for a period of 12-weeks. These regimens included tai chi, resistance training and brisk walking. Patients assigned to tai chi exhibited 30 % increase in lower body strength and 25% increase in the arm strength. Another Korean study performed in 2008 showed that 8-weeks Tai chi classes followed by 8 weeks home practise showed tremendous improvement in flexibility and disease symptoms among patients with spondylitis. 

Thus tai chi is effective in ameliorating pain and stiffness arising due to different health conditions and should be practiced regularly for prolonged effects. In future better designed trials could be performed on a larger group of individuals to get more supporting material in order to prove the effectiveness of this ancient art in treating disease symptoms in humans.

How is Tai Chi performed?

Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion”. However due to its tremendous health benefits it can also be called “medication in motion”. This is a form of exercise which is recommended for people of any age or health-status. It has been considered highly effective for patients who have underwent a surgery for the purpose of recovery. Again most of the research studies prove its potential in treating disease symptoms in elderly individuals.

Arthritis is worsened due to inactivity and Tai chi is the effective means to regain motion after prolonged inactivity. It can be performed either while sitting or standing and hence can be recommended for individuals in wheel chair as well. 

It consists of a low-impact exercises performed in a slow motion without pausing. The series of motions involved during Tai chi are named after animal actions like “white crane spreads its wings” or “Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountains ” as they imitate their actions. While performing these exercises one is supposed to breathe deeply and naturally while focusing on his/her body movement. This way Tai Chi enables oneself to regain their sense of balance and releases stress.

The movements involved during this exercise are usually stressed and aim to relax the muscles thus relieving pain. Usually a daily session might include a warm up session, small easy motions like shoulder circles, rocking back and forth or turning head from one side to another. It consists of short forms of movements and few long forms. In the beginning patients are usually asked to perform short forms of movements.

With time and practise the level of difficulty is thence increased. Additionally “qigong” translated as “energy work” or “breath work” is practised. This includes few minutes of gentle breathing along with body movements to relax the mind and body. 

All these exercises thus help in maintaining “qi” or energy flow in the body. According to Chinese medicine, our body is made up of two elements – Yin and Yang. Qi is the energy that flows between these two elements. Disease conditions cause disruption in this flow of energy and restoration could be possible with intervention. Tai chi is one such method to intervene and bring back the balance

There are various different forms of Tai chi like Yang, Cheng, Wu and Sun named in honour of the people who devised the movements. All have significant potential to heal and relieve disease symptoms. The style of Tai chi totally depends on the comfort and ability of the patient. However Sun Tai Chi is the type which has been specially devised for patients with arthritis.

It comprises of selected set of warming up and calming down exercises along with Basic core movements and advanced extension movements. It also has various adaptations and modifications to suit the requirements of alder patients. Also it is safe to practice. Thus it is advisable that if new one must try this form of Tai chi at first. 

Normally 8 to 12-week session of Tai chi demonstrates promising results among patients with arthritis. But a regular practice would not harm the individual. In fact this mild form of exercise would be beneficial for the overall health and integrity of the body. Tai chi is easy to learn and most of the individuals learn is within days or weeks. Due to all these above mentioned benefits, Tai chi is also recommended by various different arthritis monitoring organizations like Arthritis Care UK, Osteoporosis Australia and Arthritis Foundation USA . 

Precautions 

Tai Chi is a mild form of exercise and so it is quite safe to be performed by each individual. But still prior consultation from your doctor would not harm. In some patients with arthritis it is advisable not to move certain joints due to excessive damage in these regions.

Thus consultation with your physician enables you to make sure you have a prior knowledge about those joints and thus avoid causing further damage. 

Also since there are no certified teachers for Tai chi, it is important to choose your class and instructor wisely. One must always select teachers who possess enough experience in handling patients with arthritis. Books and videos could help but beginners should preferably start their sessions with a class so that the difficulty level and body movements must be modified under the guidance of an instructor.

Wearing proper shoes and dress is also crucial for unhindered body movement. Again Tai chi instructors advise against practising Tai chi after having meals, during an active infection or in case you are feeling tired.

Summary

Arthritis is a painful condition which cannot be completely cured by medication. Thus patients with arthritis are advised to use other alternative therapies in order to restore muscle strength and joint suppleness so as to maintain effective movement in the joints.

Tai chi is one such technique that enables maintaining muscle strength, flexibility and fitness among other things in the patients with arthritis. It is a mild form or exercise which is safe to be practised by people with any form or arthritis or belonging to any age group. Additionally it provides much needed relief from mental stress and helps restore body balance in the patients. Thus Tai chi is an enjoyable and easy method to enjoy better health for the patients with arthritis.