The movements of tai chi are gentle, graceful, mystical -- and, for elderly
people, a very safe way to relieve arthritis pain and gain balance, strength,
and flexibility. Tai chi is one of many alternative therapies that can provide
relief from pain, possibly letting you cut back on pain medications.
Early mornings in large and small cities in China - and increasingly in
America's parks, hospitals, and community centers - people are practicing tai
chi. It is an ancient tradition said to have developed in medieval China, to
help restore health of monks in poor physical condition from too much
meditation and too little exercise.
Pain is a normal part of life: a skinned knee, a tension headache, a bone fracture. But sometimes pain becomes chronic -- a problem to explore with your doctor. WebMD asked Eduardo Fraifeld, MD, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, to help readers understand acute vs. chronic pain.
Chi (pronounced chee) is the Chinese word for energy. In the healing arts,
tai chi is used to promote the movement of energy through the body -- similar
to blood being pumped through the body, explains Cate Morrill, a certified tai
chi instructor in Atlanta. Morrill spends much of her time in teaching classes
for seniors, many of whom are unfamiliar with this practice. "But after
five, 10, 15 minutes of tai chi, they report having pain relief," she tells
Virtually all major health organizations - including the Arthritis
Foundation -- recommend tai chi as an activity for seniors because it provides
balance of body and mind.
"The movements of tai chi keep the body fresh and allow the person to
find a freer range of motion in the joints, greater flexibility, better
balance," Morrill explains. Tai chi is often called "moving
meditation," because it is relaxing, because the focus is on breathing and
creating inner stillness -- quieting the mind, relaxing the body. When people
focus on breathing and on the movements, they aren't focused on their worldly
Older adults who try tai chi find the benefits flow into their everyday
lives in surprising ways, Morrill tells WebMD. "Everyday stuff like
gardening and cleaning the house -- even basic moves like getting in and out of
a bathtub - are easier when muscles are strong and flexible, when there is
proper balance and body alignment."
What Happens in Tai Chi Class
Tai chi movements are full of natural symbolism - "Wind Rolls with Lotus
Leaves," "Brush Dust Against the Wind," and "White Crane
Yet the application of these moves is very practical: "Folks with
arthritis in the knees tend to not bend their knees very much when they walk,
so they tend to have a stiffer gait. Some tai chi exercise work to increase the
knee flexibility," says Morrill.
For example, in the movement "Wave Hands Like Clouds," the focus is
on the hands, which seem to drift like clouds in the air. But as the hands
wave, the rest of the body is in continual slow motion, Morrill explains. The
hips are driving the body motion -- as one leg bends, the other stretches, then
the motion switches to the other side of the body. The arms rotate at the
shoulder to strengthen shoulder muscles, which encourages the arms to stretch
out fully. As weight is shifted, the body is slightly turned to produce
flexibility in the waist and strength and flexibility in side muscles.