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Can 'Chi' Ease Arthritis Pain?.

Gentle Exercise

Tai Chi: The Gentle Exercise

"Tai chi for arthritis appears to make sense from many perspectives" says Spiera. "It is a gentle form of exercise, and we know that in arthritis, anything that improves people's mobility is good for their musculoskeletal health. Some of my patients feel it has really helped them."

In one small study, eight people with chronic arthritis pain, between 68 and 87 years old, participated in 10 weekly tai chi sessions, while another group of eight people carried out their usual activities. The people who took the tai chi classes reported their level of pain decreased significantly, while pain levels in the other group increased.

"Because tai chi combines meditation with slow, circular motions, it's an ideal exercise for elderly people, says Patricia Adler, MSN, RN, lead author of the study.

In this study, "People were encouraged to practice daily but not worry about remembering or practicing all the movements," Adler says. "Many of them said they felt more relaxed and energized after the class."

Acupuncture: How Does It Work?

Oriental medicine is based on a principle called energetics, Cyrus says. "The premise is that chi is an underlying force which supports anatomical and physiological functioning. By balancing chi you promote health and well-being. We do not treat a specific biomedical complaint, we reframe that complaint as patterns of disharmony in the energetic system."

Peterson, a physician who is also an acupuncturist, uses very different words to explain how it may work.

"This is a powerful and elegant modality," she says. "Studies have shown that acupuncture needles stimulate sensory nerves, which send signals to the spinal cord, resulting in the release of [chemicals called] endorphins, which are natural pain-blockers. One animal study found acupuncture increased blood cortisol levels. Since cortisols are natural steroids, acupuncture may have a generalized anti-inflammatory effect, thus reducing pain from arthritis."

But however acupuncture works, there are so many stories suggesting it's helpful that people who haven't gotten relief from conventional medicine are understandably tempted to give it a try.

If you do try acupuncture, you shouldn't expect to feel better the moment you have your first treatment. It sometimes works more slowly than a medicine like aspirin or ibuprofen, Peterson says, but may have a longer effect. "Patients often start out with a course of 4-10 treatments, and usually experience benefit after the first several treatments," she says.

"There is a cumulative effect, depending on the degree of dysfunction," agrees Cyrus. "In my experience, diet is also very important. People with acute arthritis should avoid highly acidic foods and the nightshade family of plants, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers."

Many states license acupuncturists, usually after they pass a national certification exam. To find an acupuncturist with broad training in oriental medicine, consult the American Association of Oriental Medicine in Catasauqua, Penn. To find a physician who is trained in acupuncture, consult the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture in Los Angeles.

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Reviewed on April 17, 2002

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