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The Benefits of Tai Chi

A Look at the Evidence

By Spondylitis Association of America

The Benefits of Tai Chi
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Spondylitis Plus, the quarterly news magazine of Spondylitis Association of America. Members receive every copy of Spondylitis Plus in the mail for free.

According to the Mayo Clinic, Tai Chi is “an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing... a noncompetitive, self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching.”

“In the last two decades, a growing body of research aimed at investigating the health benefits of Tai Chi in various health conditions has been recognized in the literature.” This statement comes from a paper published in 2012 in the journal, Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine. Indeed, if you look at the results from a simple search for “Tai Chi” in the US National Library of Medicine / National Institutes of Health website, PubMed.com, there were about a dozen studies per year on Tai Chi pre-2000. In the last decade, however, studies on this form of “martial art” have increased exponentially. In 1999 PubMed only lists 17, but in 2013 there was a high of 175.

The paper (a history and literature review on the subject), “Tai Chi and chronic pain” goes on to state, “Tai Chi seems to be an effective intervention in osteoarthritis, low back pain, and fibromyalgia.”

In December of 2008, a study titled, “Tai Chi for disease activity and flexibility in patients with ankylosing spondylitis—a controlled clinical trial” was published in the journal, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The paper states that, “The Tai Chi group performed 60 min of Tai Chi twice weekly for 8 consecutive weeks and 8 weeks of home-based Tai Chi, after which the group showed significant improvement in disease activity and flexibility compared to the control group.”

Looking at the mounting number of studies, Tai Chi has been examined as to its efficacy in osteoarthritis, functional fitness in older adults, Parkinson’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis and a litany of other conditions. According to the paper, “Tai Chi and yoga as complementary therapies in rheumatologic conditions”, published in 2012 as well, “There is evidence that Tai Chi and yoga are safe, and some evidence that they have benefit, leading to reduction of pain and improvement of physical function and quality of life in patients.”

Also in 2012, the American College of Rheumatology made recommendations for Tai Chi in knee osteoarthritis and similar recommendations in osteoarthritis overall.

That said, each of the above papers issues its own cautionary disclaimer. Overall, each states that larger, randomized controlled trials are necessary to endorse a full recommendation of Tai Chi in treatment. Even the controlled study on ankylosing spondylitis states that, “We cannot completely discount the possibility that the placebo effect was responsible for the improvement.”

On the whole, the evidence looks positive. As more trials get underway, time will tell how effective Tai Chi is in helping to treat spondyloarthritis.

References & Further Reading

  • “American College of Rheumatology 2012 recommendations for the use of nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic therapies in osteoarthritis of the hand, hip, and knee.” Hochberg MC et al. Arthritis Care Res (Hoboken). 2012 Apr;64(4):465-74.
  • “Tai chi for disease activity and flexibility in patients with ankylosing spondylitis—a controlled clinical trial.” Lee EN et al. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2008 Dec;5(4):457-62. doi: 10.1093/ecam/nem048. Epub 2007 Jul 13.
  • “Tai Chi and yoga as complementary therapies in rheumatologic conditions.” Uhlig T. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2012 Jun;26(3):387-98. doi: 10.1016/j.berh.2012.05.006.
  • “Tai chi and chronic pain.” Peng PW. Reg Anesth Pain Med. 2012 Jul-Aug;37(4):372­82. doi: 10.1097/AAP.0b013e31824f6629.
  • “Tai chi: A gentle way to fight stress.” Mayo Clinic Staff.
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