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Tai Chi & Qigong for Arthritis

by Great Grand Master Kellen Chia

Sunday August 5, 2012

Tai Chi and Qigong are both ancient disciplines of gentle exercise practised to improve health and well-being. While scientific evidence finds Tai Chi and Qigong to be of great benefit in treating arthritis, the population at large is still largely unacquainted with these healing arts and their ability to relieve pain and treat the symptoms of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. In addition, Tai Chi and Qigong produce a favourable impact on one’s mental and emotional state, bringing vibrancy and a positive outlook.

Tai Chi
Tai Chi originated in China over two thousand years ago. This healing art is a gentle, slow, continuous and flowing movement that enhances the circulation of blood and Qi ( or Chi, pronounced ‘chee’ ) or life energy, improving overall health and well-being. Tai Chi is suitable for all ages and fitness levels; almost anyone can learn Tai Chi. The exercise of Tai Chi is enjoyable, and it helps one to relax physically and mentally –- Tai Chi is practised in a meditative manner.

Qigong means life-energy skill or life-energy achievement. It is a seven thousand year-old exercise and therapy –- Qigong is a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) -- for improving health and longevity. Qigong is a self-training process for cultivating Qi. It involves slow movement, breath adjustment, meditation, and the entering into a relaxed state physically and mentally -- all for the purpose of improving and harmonising the flow of Qi, and the integration of mind and body. There are different categories of Qigong, as explained in the previous article: The difference between Tai Chi and Qigong

The Benefits of Tai Chi
Practising Tai Chi regularly is of great benefit physically, mentally and physiologically. Tai Chi has been shown to be beneficial for a number of medical conditions such as arthritis, stroke, heart disease and heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, hypertension, breast cancer and its side effects, low bone density, diabetes, asthma, high and low blood pressure and fatigue.

The Benefits of Qigong
Qigong movements have all of the health benefits that Tai Chi has. Furthermore, Qigong has much more variety with over two thousand Qigong movements, several of which have been specifically created to treat particular medical problems of the body. Qigong is very easy to learn, and anyone can practise it; the movements of Kinetic Qigong are flowing and relaxing. It is not unusual for novices to feel a tingling sensation of the Qi in the fingertips during practice, which indicates that the health benefits of Qigong can be achieved in a very short time.

Arthritis from the Perspective of Conventional Medicine
Arthritis is the inflammation of one or more joints; a joint is the area where two or more bones meet. Joint inflammation is usually caused by wear and tear on the joints, or by an autoimmune disease (the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue), broken bone, or infection usually by a bacteria or virus. Usually the joint inflammation is gone when the cause goes away, but when it does not, then it is arthritis.

Arthritis involves the breakdown of cartilage -- the firm, rubbery tissue that cushions the bones at the joints and allows bones to glide over one another. Cartilage also absorbs shocks when pressure is placed on the joint in activities such as walking. When the cartilage breaks down and wears away, the bones rub together causing pain, swelling (inflammation), stiffness and limited movement. Bony spurs or extra bone may form around the joint causing ligaments and muscles around the joint to become weaker and stiffer.

There are over one hundred different types of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common type, which is due to aging, and wear and tear on a joint.

According to conventional medicine, arthritis cannot be cured except for a few arthritis-related disorders which with proper treatment can be completely cured.

Symptoms of Arthritis
Symptoms can include joint pain, joint swelling, reduced ability to move the joint, stiffness, warmth around a joint, redness of the skin around a joint and limited overall movement.

Tai Chi Therapy for Arthritis
Tai Chi requires techniques to be learnt in order to practise the correct form. For the infirm and for people with a limited range of motion, a few modifications are needed, and so a fully qualified and experienced teacher is essential –- ideally, the essence of the form should be watered down as little as possible. Tai Chi is not difficult to learn if one has the coordination and the right kind of flexibility required to perform the movements, but even if otherwise one’s coordination and flexibility will eventually be developed. There are both healthy, able-bodied students and arthritis sufferers who take much longer than normal to learn the basic Tai Chi form correctly, however, within just eight weeks of practice most arthritis sufferers find Tai Chi to be extremely beneficial. Those who practise Tai Chi regularly have reported significantly reduced pain and stiffness. In addition, learning Tai Chi -- which entails continuous, sequenced and elegant movement -- generates a sense of achievement that uplifts one’s mood.

Qigong Therapy for Arthritis
Qigong techniques are simple and do not need to be carried out precisely to bring about its great benefits. Qigong practice is known for preventing disease, strengthening immunity and producing better health and well-being. However it is under-appreciated, even in China, that Qigong therapy can be effective for relieving pain and treating arthritis. Clinical studies ( of open trials without control ) reported in Chinese medical literature show the effectiveness of Qigong therapy in treating chronic arthritis patients where other treatments had failed to show any benefits.

The Benefits of Practising Tai Chi and Qigong for Arthritis Sufferers
Tai Chi and Qigong both bring about the conditions necessary for improvement:

• Muscular strength, Muscle function, and Muscle balance
Tai Chi and Qigong exercises promote muscular strength, better muscle function and muscle balance, thus helping protect the joints by absorbing the impact of forces. Muscular strength, good muscle function and muscle balance not only protect the joints but also help to relieve pain, abate stress, prevent falls and halt degeneration. Muscular health can be important in preventing osteoarthritis and other types of arthritis. Medical studies suggest that it is muscle dysfunction rather than exercise, that is a possible cause of ‘wear and tear’ arthritis.

• Flexibility
Tai Chi and Qigong develop flexibility very effectively and in a short period of time such that one can move and reach out easily. Tai Chi and Qigong condition the muscles and the body to relax, which over time allows the joints and muscles to loosen up and improve the circulation of the body’s fluids and blood. This is of great help to those suffering arthritis associated with joint stiffness and impaired physical function, such as fibromyalgia, spondylitis and scleroderma.

• Coordination
Training the body in Tai Chi, and to a lesser extent in Qigong, develops coordination by enhancing all of the body’s systems and muscles, and ameliorating one’s balance mechanism. Better coordination in Tai Chi and Qigong improve the flow of energy throughout the body, resulting in the whole body being energized.

• Fitness
Tai Chi and Qigong, when practised regularly, improve fitness -- essential for the body’s systems and organs, for strengthening the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, and for helping resist the bone-thinning condition of osteoporosis.

• Relaxation
Regular practice of Tai Chi and Qigong significantly reduces or eliminates stress, elevates energy levels and brings about a bright mental outlook overall. This all helps one recover more quickly from flare-ups, and may even prevent reoccurrence. Relaxation can also help ease stiffness, reduce pain and relieve fatigue.

The Scientific Evidence
A study carried out by Tufts University School of Medicine in Massachusetts was published in a journal of the American College of Rheumatology in November 2008. Forty patients with severe knee osteoarthritis were divided into two groups, one group practising Tai Chi for sixty minutes a session twice a week while the other group ( the control group ) were assigned standard stretching exercises. At the end of twelve weeks the patients practising Tai Chi exhibited a significant decrease in knee pain compared to the control group. The patients in the Tai Chi program were also observed to show improved physical function, self-efficacy, reduced levels of depression and a better status of overall health.

The largest study on Tai Chi for many different types of arthritis was published in 2010 by the University of North Carolina, showing significant benefits from Tai Chi exercise for people with all types of arthritis. In the study, 354 participants with many types of arthritis were assigned to the twice-weekly Tai Chi course. At the end of eight weeks the participants showed moderate improvements in pain, stiffness and fatigue. They also had improved reach and balance, and had an increased sense of well-being.

The aim of treatment in arthritis is to reduce pain, improve function, and to prevent further joint damage. Medication has side-effects –- some being high risk. If circumstances permit it is far preferable to cut back on medication by making lifestyle changes and by practising the right exercises such as Qigong and Tai Chi.

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