Traditional Tai Chi Can Improve Fibromyalgia Symptoms

Tai Chi, with its fluid, slow flowing movements is the ideal exercise form for people who suffer from chronic pain disorders such as fibromyalgia and arthritis. Tai Chi has been a renowned martial arts-turned form of healing- method practice in Chinese culture for thousands of years. However, how is it being understood in Western scientific circles, in terms of research?

A researcher from Tufts University School of Medicine looked at the possible benefits of Tai Chi in a clinical trial. He studied 66 participants who were randomly assigned to stretching exercises or Tai Chi.

The Tai Chi group learned and performed twelve weeks of Tai Chi to see if it resulted in a positive difference in pain and functionality. What he discovered was that the practice of Tai Chi for just twelve weeks was able to relieve many of the symptoms of fibromyalgia and improved the quality of the participants’ lives.

The research study compared people who did Tai Chi with people who received education in wellness and were taught stretching exercises and found that the performers of Tai Chi did much better than other subjects.

Symptoms that improved included sleep, feelings of wellbeing, pain reduction, and energy levels among people who had fibromyalgia. Even their mental health was improved after taking Tai Chi lessons.

During the study, about 10-20 percent of participants felt that Tai Chi was not helpful, while 50-60 percent of people began to feel better by week 8. The study went on for a total of 24 weeks after which many people wanted to continue doing Tai Chi after the study was over.

How The Study Worked

Tai Chi is a form of mind and body exercise that strengthens the focus of the brain and allows the body to relax into poses in a gradual way that improves both strength and balance. In the study noted above, the participants had had their symptoms of fibromyalgia for an average of eleven years.

To make matters more interesting, the patients were led to believe that the exercise/education group was the superior group to be in when actually the researchers suspected the opposite to be true. It is impossible to “blind” study participants as to what type of exercise they are doing in a research study. Instead, these investigators did a clever study design by raising expectations about which approach would be better.

In the Tai Chi group, the participants studied with a Tai Chi master twice a week for twelve weeks; they also learned related techniques in meditation, relaxation, and breathing. They were instructed to practice Tai Chi in their own homes for a minimum of twenty minute a day. The form of Tai Chi they learned was heavily weighted toward large, gentle and slow movements in which there was a great deal of meditation.

A related study was done which took Tai Chi to new levels. In the second study, patients with arthritis were targeted toward doing Tai Chi or another form of exercise. These people, too, did better with Tai Chi.

The participants who did Tai Chi had less pain, less stiffness and were much less fatigued. They all slept better and had better balance than those who did stretching exercises. This has implications for fibromyalgia patients who suffer a risk of falls due to poor balance. The Tai Chi participants felt more confident about moving around without risk of falling.

Why Is Tai Chi So Helpful?

Researchers believe that there are many reasons why Tai Chi works on patients with fibromyalgia. Because it integrates spiritual, mental, and physical activities, it involves more of the mind and body working together. Participants who took the Tai Chi classes tended to bond with one another during the classes, which also improved their general outlook and physical symptoms. Social support is always helpful for most conditions.

Another key element that results in positive results in pain management with Tai Chi has to do with stress and the fight or flight response that comes with it and worsens pain. Everyday stressors can make pain worse, and Tai Chi goes a long way to alleviating stress.

First, it elicits the relaxation response in the body, which is the opposite physical manifestation of the stress response. Second, regular participation in Tai Chi results in practitioners being able to cope better with stress because of Tai Chi’s ability to calm the mind that extends to everyday living.

Get Started

While these people studied under a well-trained master who had more than twenty years of teaching under his belt, the researchers feel that anyone with a Tai Chi DVD or who takes Tai Chi as part of a community exercise program would do just as well as those training under a master. The participants initially reported some pain with their Tai Chi exercise program; however, much of this pain was alleviated as they continued to practice the art.


About the Author Kris Greenway

Natural Wellness Zone is a blog discussion of approaches to self care using complementary, alternative, and integrative therapies that make sense to help people dealing with a range of health challenges. Kris Greenway is a fellow patient who has researched and found more natural ways to deal with a long list of health problems, including type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, leaky gut, and arthritis. She includes information and updates from expert physicians to educate people about their natural wellness options.