Study – Tai Chi improves Osteoarthritis Knee Pain and Function
a degeneration of cartilage and the underlying bone in a joint, most common in those over 40 years of age. It causes pain and stiffness, esp. in the hip, knee, and thumb joints.
a chronic progressive disease causing inflammation in the joints and resulting in painful deformity and immobility, esp. in the fingers, wrists, feet, and ankles.
Osteoarthritis is a common ailment in seniors. It can often cause chronic pain and impair joint function in older people. It is estimated that ten percent of people older than 55 have frequent knee pain caused by osteoarthritis.
A new study from Tufts University in Boston Massachussetts seems to show that practicing tai chi may can reduce osteoarthritis pain. Not only that. It can also improve the function of the joints.
The study is reported in the Arthritis Care & Research, November 2009 issue.
The three-month study followed forty people with osteoarthritis of the knee. The average age of the subjects was 65 years. All were over the age of 55. Half of the subjects were placed randomly in tai chi classes twice per week for one hour each. The classes included tai chi forms as well as self-massage and tai chi breathing and relaxation methods. Also, subjects were asked to practice at least 20 minutes per day at home. Subjects were also asked to maintain their usual physical routine.
The half of the subjects in the control group took hour-long classes on methods of treating osteoarthritis two times per week. These taught them diet and nutrition and stress management. The control group also did full-body stretching exercises and were asked to stretch for 20 minutes a day at home in addition to sticking to their normal exercise routine.
At the end of the study, the tai chi students demonstrated a much more significant decrease in knee pain than the control group. The tai chi students also had greater improvement in joint function, mood and overall health. Researchers measured an average drop in pain of 75% in the tai chi group and a 72% increase in function for normal daily tasks such as climbing and descending stairs.
While authors did not claim to know the mechanisms by which tai chi may improve osteoarthritis, they did write that “synergy between its physical and mental components likely plays a major role.” They said that tai chi may enhance cardiovascular benefits, increase muscular strength, refine balance, increase coordination, and improve physical function. All of these are thought to be able to reduce joint pain.”
Many of those suffering with osteoarthritis rely on drugs to cope with the pain. However, many specialists, like many tai chi instructors and students, believe that tai chi offers special benifits.
When researchers gathered follow-up data 12 weeks and 36 weeks after the end of the program, more than half of the subjects in both groups had quit doing the exercises, and the differences between the groups was significantly lower. But the subjects from the tai chi group still had better depression scores.
I suggest that any single clinical study be taken with at least a grain of salt. While we at TaiChiCentral.com have lots of experience with anecdotal evidence for the positive effect of tai chi on different types of arthritis, we might find ourselves tempted to jump on any study which validates our personal experience. However, studies with only 40 subjects should not taken as scientific proof. At best, it shows what we already believe, that it warrants further study. I find myself needing to point out that clinical studies are not the be-all and end-all of scientific research.
Quality of instruction:
For those who are not familiar with tai chi, it should be pointed out that there are several different styles of tai chi, and within each style there is a vast difference in the quality of instruction. A good instructor can profoundly affect the benefits for a good student. A bad instructor may have a much less positive effect. And a bad student might not benefit from any instruction.
Defining tai chi:
Tai chi (also known as “tai chi chuan”, “taijiquan” or “taiji”) is not just a series of slow and gentle exercises. It is a way of being and moving. Proper instruction involves more than choreography. It includes a progressive system for improving alignment, strength, coodination, flexibility, agility, relaxation, awareness, peace of mind, and overall well-being.
Tai chi is also a martial art, even though most of those who teach or practise tai chi do so with very little emphasis on the martial aspect. The martial origin is still important to the proper teaching and understanding of the art. Traditional internal martial arts like tai chi are by definition, means of dealing with violence and imbalance. To manage external imbalance, one must first learn to manage internal balance. This is why these arts have developed such a subtle and profound emphasis on physical and mental health and well-being.
Finding a teacher:
For those looking for a tai chi teacher, you might try the World Tai Chi Directory. You might also try your local community centre or parks and recreation program. But remember, not every teacher is right for every student, and not every student is right for every teacher. Try a class or an 8-week or 12-week session. If it isn’t for you, then keep your eyes out for another school.
The popularity of tai chi is increasing, with or without studies such as this one. The availability and quality of instruction should hopefully continue to improve as well.
– Ian Sinclair