We often look to foreign shores for alternative approaches to our health, and the exotic east has a plethora of options to choose from, including T’ai chi. Originally developed as a martial art in China, T’ai chi has evolved and today combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements.
T’ai chi is low impact and does not involve much pressure on the bones and joints so is an extremely accessible form of exercise and relaxation for people of all ages and levels of fitness. It involves shifting body weight between the legs while the knees remain flexible. Followers of Chinese medicine believe that these movements and postures stabilise energy and create emotional balance. Although this is difficult to prove, what is certain is that the movements can lead to greater flexibility, balance, muscle strength and function.
What does the evidence say?
In 2013, Arthritis Research UK published a comprehensive review of complementary and alternative therapies for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia and low back pain. A close look at the scientific research into T’ai chi led to the charity’s expert panel concluding:
“T’ai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that combines meditation, deep breathing and relaxation, with slow, graceful movements. It’s generally considered safe to practise. There’s little evidence that it’s effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, although the data is more promising for fibromyalgia. A number of trials have looked at osteoarthritis and there’s some consistency to the evidence suggesting that it’s effective. However, benefits appear to be limited to symptoms of knee osteoarthritis, rather than multiple joints. There’s currently no evidence for low back pain.”
Since then, more research has been carried out and it seems that T’ai chi is promising when it comes to managing arthritis symptoms, although the evidence for inflammatory forms of arthritis is still not strong.
What happens in a session?
Each T’ai chi class begins with loosening exercises designed to relax muscles and joints and open the energy channels. You will then begin to learn gentle stretching exercises designed to improve flexibility, strength, relaxation and awareness. Each week participants are usually shown a new movement with the aim of eventually learning a whole sequence.
People are encouraged to work within their capabilities, being mindful of any pain or discomfort and gently extend their boundaries.
Find a class that’s suitable for your specific needs by asking friends, searching online or looking at posters in community centres, libraries and GP surgeries. Describe your physical situation to the instructor and ask if you can attend a free taster session before committing to a full course. Wear comfortable, loose fitting clothes.
The bottom line
T’ai chi is not going to make arthritis or any other condition disappear. But it can be a great way of reducing pain and stiffness and improving strength and flexibility for people with osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. People with inflammatory forms of arthritis appear to gain less benefit but research is ongoing.
We asked, on facebook, about the experiences that people with arthritis had with T’ai chi. Here are some of the responses:
Carol Vickers: I have hip osteoarthritis and Ehlers-Danlos and am 41 years old. I went to a T’ai chi class looking for low impact exercise to keep my muscles moving. I hadn’t realised I would be expected to stand for an hour, which I cannot do due to the extreme pain it causes in my hips, back and pelvis. I don’t think I even managed to finish the first class so I never went back. I’d advise people with similar health issues to myself to look for a class where you can be seated.
Sally Estes: I have rheumatoid arthritis and bursitis. I was 35 years old when I first experienced symptoms but I’m seronegative so didn’t get a firm diagnosis for around four years. I took a T’ai chi class because my husband knew the teacher. It had some great mental benefits and may have been improving my balance but it was hard on my knees and hips when I didn’t have good form.
Jennifer O Neill: My degenerative arthritis and spondylitis was diagnosed in 2014. Since then I’ve had my spine fused and a right knee replacement operation. I had been extremely sporty up until 2014, going to the gym six or seven days a week. Over the years, exercise became my go-to when I was stressed, and I overdid it. After my diagnosis and subsequent surgery I had to change my approach to fitness so I tried T’ai chi. In the past I would have avoided T’ai chi’s slow pace but it actually makes me more conscious of myself, my body and my energy. I practice T’ai chi about five times a week and have been on one intense weekend course. I’m planning another when my knee heals. T’ai chi alleviates my stiffness, strengthens my core and gives me a sense of great calmness overall.