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Arthritis Health Center

Tai Chi for Arthritis Relief

Gentle movements of the ancient Chinese exercise tai chi are one of many alternatives to help elderly people find pain relief.
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Gain Back 8 Years of Youth

According to legend, "if you meditate and do tai chi 100 days in a row, you gain back eight years of youth," says Morrill.

While many of today's tai chi movements have roots in martial arts, the goal is indeed therapeutic. Progress is measured in terms of coordination, strength, balance, flexibility, breathing, digestion, emotional balance, and a general sense of well-being.

Tai chi and other types of mindfulness-based practices "are intended to maintain muscle tone, strength, and flexibility, and perhaps even spiritual aspects like mindfulness - focusing in the moment, focusing away from the pain," says Raymond Gaeta, MD, director of pain management services at Stanford Hospital & Clinics.

Parag Sheth, MD, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York, saw the popularity of tai chi on a visit to China 20 years ago. "We saw it every morning - thousands of people in the park doing tai chi, all of them elderly," he tells WebMD.

"There's logic in how tai chi works," Sheth says. "Tai chi emphasizes rotary movements -- turning the body from side to side, working muscles that they don't use when walking, building muscle groups they are not used to using. If they have some strength in those support muscles - the rotators in the hip -- that can help prevent a fall."

The slow, controlled movements help older people feel secure doing tai chi, he adds. "Also, they learn to bend on one leg -- to control that movement - which is something you don't get to practice very often," says Sheth. "That's important because, as we get older and more insecure, we tend to limit our movements and that limits certain muscles from getting used. When people strengthen those muscles slowly, when they find their balance, they learn to trust themselves more."

What Studies Have Shown

A study published in 1997 found that older adults who took 15 tai chi lessons and practiced for 15 minutes twice daily were able to significantly reduce their risk of falls. Since then, several more studies have pointed to the physical benefits of tai chi for the elderly.

  • One six-month study, a group of older adults who took part in tai chi were about twice as likely to report that they were not limited in their ability to perform moderate-to-vigorous daily activities - things like walking, climbing, bending, lifting. The people in that study also reported better overall quality of life - in terms of bodily pain, mental health, and perceptions of health and independence.
  • Another study of older adults with arthritis showed that those who took a 12-week tai chi course got around better and had less pain in their legs. Yet another study found that people with arthritis who took a 12-week tai chi class had stronger abdominal muscles and better balance afterward.
  • A review of four studies on tai chi found that it does not appear to significantly reduce pain or lessen the severity of rheumatoid arthritis. However, it does significantly improve range of motion in the joints of the legs and ankles. Those who got the most benefit reported participating more in their tai chi classes and enjoying them more compared with those who were in a traditional exercise program.
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