Arthritis patients may gain physical and emotional relief from the ancient Chinese art of tai chi, finds a new study, the largest of its kind.

Patients with osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease), rheumatoid arthritis (marked by inflammation of the joints) and fibromyalgia a chronic condition characterized by fatigue, sleep disturbances and widespread pain) felt better and moved more easily after taking twice-weekly classes in tai chi, researchers found. A form of mind-body exercise, tai chi originated as a martial art in China. It utilizes slow, gentle movements along with deep breathing and relaxation to build strength and flexibility.

"It reduced pain, stiffness and fatigue, and improved their balance," said study lead author Leigh F. Callahan, PhD, an associate professor of medicine, orthopaedics and social medicine at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

Smaller studies have also linked tai chi to similar benefits for people with arthritis, but colleagues had questioned the applicability of the findings to a larger population.

In this study, in addition to evidence of mild to moderate relief from tai chi, participants reported gaining a better sense of physical stability, Dr. Callahan said. They were able to extend their reach while maintaining their balance, she said-an important feat for people with arthritis.

Study Details

Researchers randomly assigned 247 people with various types of arthritis to attend one-hour, twice-weekly, tai chi classes for two months, or to take the tai chi classes at a later time. The classes were designed by the Arthritis Foundation. The participants had to be able to move without assistance to be eligible.

The researchers took reports from all the participants on their levels of pain, fatigue, stiffness and physical function before the study began and at the eight-week evaluation period. They were also asked to rate themselves on their overall health, their psychological state (such as perceived helplessness), and how well they could perform daily activities.

The participants were also tested on their strength and physical performance by using a timed chair stand (which evaluates lower leg strength), their walking gait (both normal and fast) and two balance tests (a single leg stand and a reach test.)

Dr. Callahan said she couldn't yet quantify the improvements by percentage, but the participants felt mildly to moderately better and improved their sense of well-being. They also slept better, she said.

Tai chi appears to provide both physical and mental benefits, she added. The whole program is designed to help people be relaxed and think about their breathing, think about their movements. Everything is slow and deliberate and purposeful.

The findings of the study—which was funded in part by the Arthritis Foundation and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—were presented at the annual scientific meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in Atlanta.

Expert Commentary

Myeong Soo Lee, PhD, a principal researcher with the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in Daejeon, South Korea, said the study is "rigorous but has limitations. For one thing, it didn't break down the benefits by arthritis type, she noted.

While the findings may add weight to the case for tai chi as a treatment for some forms of arthritis, Dr. Lee said more information is needed before it could become a blanket prescription.

An Exercise For All Abilities

Tai chi has become a lot more mainstream than it was even two to three years ago," said Dr. Callahan, who is also a member of UNC's Thurston Arthritis Research Center. "We've got people embracing it and being very interested in it."

If tai chi is proven to reduce arthritis symptoms, it could become a cheap and fairly simple treatment for the various forms of the condition. Typically, tai chi classes are inexpensive or free, Dr. Callahan said, and in this study, people with arthritis could participate even if they preferred to sit rather than stand.

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