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Tai Chi Helps to Relieve Osteoarthritis Pain

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Tai Chi Helps to Relieve Osteoarthritis Pain

March 30, 2004
By Stephanie Riesenman for Knee1
While the benefits of exercise for patients with osteoarthritis are well documented, the type of activity and intensity of exercise that is recommended for relief from painful arthritic joints remains unclear. Lately, the ancient Chinese practice of tai chi has been growing in popularity. Patients find this low-impact workout helps to reduce arthritis pain and improves muscle function. "If someone has arthritis, they should be looking for something like this," said Carolyn Perkins, a t’ai chi chih (pronounced tie chee chuh) instructor who’s been teaching classes in New York City for over 8 years. "It is a simple form of moving meditation," explains Perkins. T’ai chi chih involves 19 rhythmic movements. It is a discipline that combines breathing exercises and concentration. The movements are inspired by the martial arts, but require no jumping or jerking of the body. Instead, the exercises take the joints gently through their range of motion, helping the individual to focus their mind and concentrate on breathing. The expected result: to achieve relaxation and relieve stress. "The concept is, as we do the movements, we bring harmony back into the body," said Perkins. Perkins teaches some of her classes at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. Her classes consist mostly of women, 40 years and older. Many of these women have developed osteoarthritis and are hoping to avoid surgery. Some of the women in her classes have already had joint replacement surgery. For maximum benefit, Perkins recommends they attend class at least 3 to 4 days a week. First-timers usually learn and feel comfortable with the movements after just 6 to 8 classes. Research among the elderly who have balance disorders shows that the various forms of tai chi can restore balance and help reduce falls. Tai chi has also been shown to improve bone density in women, increase flexibility, and build muscle mass. The most recent study on the benefits of tai chi in an osteoarthritic population found that after just 12 weeks, women aged 55 and older, reported less pain and stiffness and showed improved physical functioning. The study, published in The Journal of Rheumatology in September of 2003, reported this small group of women as having 35% less pain, 29% less stiffness, and 29% improvement in physical functioning, compared to women who did not do the "Sun-style" tai chi exercises. The "Sun-style" tai chi reported on in the study was designed specifically for patients with osteoarthritis. It involves slow, continuous, and gentle motions with a higher stance than other tai chi styles. It consists of warm-up exercises for the entire body, 12 main movements, and cool-down exercises. In the study published in The Journal of Rheumatology, about 43% of the participants dropped out of the program due to personal and family problems. However, those who stayed the full 12-weeks "commented that the tai chi movements had been easy to follow, attractive, and even enjoyable," according to the study. Instructor Carolyn Perkins said the exercises are very easy to do, and that newcomers will get benefits, "if they take the movements gently when starting out." She says her drop out rate is fairly low. In fact, she said, some of her regulars have been attending t’ai chi chih classes for 6 years. For more information on tai chi and the "Sun-style" form that specifically benefits those experiencing osteoarthritis pain, turn to their web site at www.taichichih.org.

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