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.
"I'm an absolute huge fan of tai chi," says Jason Theodoskais, MD, MS, MPH, FACPM, author of The Arthritis Cure and a preventive and sports medicine specialist at the University of Arizona Medical Center.
Any type of motion helps lubricate the joints by moving joint fluid, which is helpful in relieving pain, he says. "Tai chi is not a cure-all, but it's one piece of the puzzle. What's good about tai chi is that it's a gentle motion, so even people who are severely affected with arthritis can do it. Also, tai chi helps strengthen the joints in a functional manner... you strengthen muscles in the way your body normally uses the joints."
More Alternatives for Arthritis Pain
Many more options can help relieve arthritis pain. These include:
Acupuncture: Acupuncture is another Chinese tradition that the World Health Organization has recommended as a treatment for pain. In acupuncture, disposable, stainless steel needles are used to stimulate the body's 14 major meridians (or energy-carrying channels) to correct energy imbalances in the body, according to Chinese medical philosophy. When the needles stimulate these nerves, it causes a dull ache or feeling of fullness in the muscle.
Western doctors believe that since many acu-points are located near nerves, the needles help decrease pain by stimulating chemicals that block pain, called endorphins. The stimulated muscle sends a message to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), causing the release of endorphins (morphine-like painkilling chemicals in our own bodies). This blocks the message of pain from being delivered up to the brain.