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Can 'Chi' Ease Arthritis Pain?

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"In my experience, acupuncture has generally been helpful for osteoarthritis. There is some controversy about how it works, but it's certainly a reasonable thing to try," says Judith Peterson, MD, a trained acupuncturist. "I try to do what offers the best result for the patient. For arthritis that might mean a combination of exercise, medicine, adapting the environment, and acupuncture." Peterson, who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation, is a clinical assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

"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."

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."

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