Releasing Stress, Pain through Tai Chi

Multi-ethnic group of seniors taking tai chi class

By Julia Cruz, Tufts Medical Center Correspondent

Mary was growing frustrated. The chronic pain she felt on a daily basis was making her miserable. She had difficulty sleeping, could barely walk half a mile and felt little joy or pleasure in her life.

“It hurt so much just to put my arms over my head,” she lamented.

Like Mary, many patients suffering from chronic pain have little luck with drugs to manage their symptoms and see few improvements with physical therapy and other treatments. The daily suffering and feelings of hopelessness can create additional stress, making a difficult situation even worse.

But luckily, Mary was able some relief for her discomfort during a randomized study at Tufts Medical Center that is offering hope for chronic pain sufferers and people dealing with stress. The study found that regularly practicing Tai Chi has short term therapeutic benefits, promoting pain relief and general wellbeing.

“Tai Chi integrates physical, psychosocial, and behavioral elements, and may be especially suited to tackling both the psychological and somatic symptoms associated with chronic pain,” notes Dr. Chenchen Wang, Director of the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine in the Division of Rheumatology at Tufts Medical Center. “Tai Chi appears to be associated with improvements in psychological well-being, including reduced stress, anxiety, depression and mood disturbance, and increased self-esteem.”

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese discipline, originally used as self-defense. It involves a series of slow, graceful movements accompanied by deep breathing. Dr. Wang and her team conducted a series of randomized trials that looked at Tai Chi as a treatment for chronic rheumatic conditions. In one study, they compared Tai Chi’s effectiveness to that of aerobic exercise, a common non-drug treatment for fibromyalgia. They found that Tai Chi was more effective, and the longer you practice, the greater the benefits.

“We also found that these therapeutic benefits were consistent across a diverse group of patients, regardless of the instructor,” says Dr. Wang. “Therefore, tai chi may be applied in a variety of settings for a range of patients.”

Tai Chi is a low impact exercise, putting minimal stress on joints and muscles, while creating a feeling of relaxation throughout the body and mind. Tai Chi doesn’t require any kind of equipment, and is gentle enough for people to practice at any age.

Debbie Anderson, 64, has been practicing Tai Chi for nearly 20 years. She says it helps her wind down at the end of each day.

“It puts you completely in the zone, like a moving meditation,” notes Anderson.

Participants in Dr. Wang’s study, including Mary, said they were more likely to enjoy and practice Tai Chi, than aerobic exercise.

“People from the Tai Chi study group continued to call our office after the study ended, looking for opportunities for more Tai Chi training,” remarks Dr. Wang. “What we found suggests patients may be more likely to enjoy, manage, and continue to practice Tai Chi.”

Posted March 2019

The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.

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