Tai Chi May Ease Rheumatoid Arthritis

Martial Art May Increase Range of Motion in Ankles, Knees

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 21, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

July 21, 2004 -- Practicing the ancient Chinese martial art of tai chi may help improve the range of motion for people with rheumatoid arthritis although it may not have a big impact on other aspects of the disease, according to a new study.

Researchers say that tai chi has been recognized for centuries as an effective therapy for arthritis, but until now there had not been a review of the evidence to date on the effectiveness of tai chi on rheumatoid arthritis.

The results of their review of four studies on the issue show that although tai chi does not appear to significantly reduce pain or lessen the severity of the disease, it doesn't have any detrimental effects and may provide other benefits.

For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis who practiced tai chi experienced a significant improvement in their range of motion of the joints of the legs and ankles in particular, and reported higher levels of participation in and enjoyment of exercise compared with those who participated in traditional exercise programs.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic disease that affects the immune system and causes pain, stiffness, and swelling of the joints.

Treatment of the rheumatoid arthritis usually involves a variety of approaches designed to reduce pain as well as reduce inflammation, prevent disability, and slow down the progression of the disease.

Tai chi is a martial art that was developed in the 13th century and is based on the inspiration of a fight between a crane and a snake. It combines deep breathing and relaxation techniques with slow and gentle movements while maintaining good postures.

More Research Needed

In the study, which appears in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews, researchers reviewed four randomized controlled trials and controlled clinical trials that looked at the benefits and risks of exercise programs involving tai chi in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.

The four trials studied involved more than 200 people who practiced tai chi for eight to 10 weeks, received no therapy, or took other forms of exercise classes.

The review showed that tai chi had little effect on the most common measures of disease severity, such as the ability to carry out daily activities or swollen and tender joints. But one study showed that practicing tai chi produced a significant improvement in the range of motion in the ankle.

Researchers say preserving a good range of motion may help reduce future disability among people with rheumatoid arthritis.

The study also showed that people enrolled in a tai chi program were much less likely to drop out versus those in the control groups.

Researchers say there still isn't enough evidence on the effects of tai chi on rheumatoid arthritis to meet the "gold standard" of scientific research. For example, none of the studies reviewed tested for improvements in pain or quality if life.

But they say these results are still promising in some respects.

"There is a 'silver' level of evidence that tai chi improves the range of motion of the ankle, hip, and knee in people with rheumatoid arthritis," write researcher Alice Han, and colleagues. "It did not improve people's ability to do chores, joint tenderness, grip strength, or their number of swollen joints; nor did it increase their symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. But people felt that they improved when doing tai chi and enjoyed it."

Show Sources

SOURCE: Han, A. Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews, July 19, 2004 online edition; issue 3.

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