By Tom Keppeler, Knee1 Staff
The all-too-familiar aches and pains that arthritis sufferers endure may be eliminated—or at least lessened—by the centuries-old Chinese practice known as Tai Chi.
Tai Chi's slow, fluid movements can limber up creaky joints, a recent article in Arthritis Today suggests. The discipline can also improve balance and flexibility, gradually improve muscle strength, and reduce blood pressure.
Tai Chi is based around the flow of "chi" or "qi," a life-sustaining, mind-calming energy force that the Chinese believe resides within the body. In practice, it looks like a slow, graceful dance through various postures, with such soothing names as "Grasp Sparrow's Tail" and "White Crane Spreading Its Wings." The discipline has some 600 years of history and has been prescribed for nearly every physical ailment, mostly due to its low-impact and calming nature.
In a typical Tai Chi class, an instructor demonstrates the many poses of Tai Chi and leading the class through them in sequence. Sequences gradually become longer and can be done at varying speeds, paying close attention to breathing technique and posture.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, researchers believe—but have yet to prove—that Tai Chi also helps relieve pain in arthritis sufferers. By moving the joints through their entire range of motion, the exercise limbers and lubricates them. In addition, the meditational aspects of the discipline will help calm the user's mind while decreasing blood pressure.
Studies have proven that Tai Chi holds true benefits for the human body. For elderly people, it can improve balance, thereby decreasing their chance of a fall and thus, broken bones. A 1996 study in Atlanta showed that the risk of a fall was reduced by nearly 48 percent in elders who went through a Tai Chi course, the Arthritis Foundation reported. A 1999 study found it improves the quality of life for people with Multiple Sclerosis and other degenerative conditions. A 1991 study involving 10 weeks of classes in Tai Chi concluded that it did not worsen joint problems and may stimulate connective tissue and bone growth. Researchers have not yet done a study to prove that it reduces the symptoms of arthritis, although many have suggested that it does.
Arthritis sufferers should beware, however: some classes in Tai Chi are adaptations on the original discipline that are meant for a younger clientele. A newcomer must not push him or herself too far during classes or after classes end. "The 'right' version for you is one that you can do easily, without making hard or forceful movements and without stressing your joints and muscles," Arthritis Today Contributing Editor Judith Horstman writes in a recent issue. "If you have pain that lasts more than a few hours after class, talk to the instructor about how to change the movements to work inside your limits."