Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author
Frequent exercise is one of the most useful remedies for managing arthritis, but for those in considerable or even moderate pain, the idea of starting a fitness program is daunting. That’s why a recent study involving knee osteoarthritis (OA) sufferers and Tai Chi, a traditional Chinese martial art of slow, rhythmic movements designed to induce mental relaxation and enhance balance, strength and flexibility, is so intriguing.
According to the study, published in the November 2009 issue of Arthritis Care & Research, Tai Chi is especially effective in reducing knee OA in the elderly.
Nearly 4.3 million U.S. adults over age 60 have been diagnosed with knee OA, and the Centers for Disease Control predict that half of U.S. adults may develop symptoms of OA in at least one knee by age 85. Overall, nearly 46 million Americans, or one in six people, suffer from arthritis. The most common form is osteoarthritis, in which the cartilage that covers the ends of bones in the joint deteriorates, causing pain and loss of joint movement as bone rubs against bone.
Tufts University School of Medicine researchers, who conducted the Tai Chi study, found that patients over 65 with knee OA who engage in regular Tai Chi improve physical function and experience less pain. In general, exercise reduces joint pain and stiffness for arthritis sufferers, builds stronger muscles around the joints and increases flexibility and endurance.
In this study, 20 participants with knee OA took one-hour Tai Chi sessions twice a week for three months. A control group attended one hour classes on diet, nutrition and other treatments for OA, and stretched for 20 minutes. At the end of the study, the group practicing Tai Chi reported a significant decrease in knee pain compared to the other group.
“Tai Chi is a mind-body approach that appears to be an applicable treatment for older adults with knee OA,” said researchers. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation has a “Tai Chi for Arthritis” program, which certifies instructors. “This type of training is the perfect exercise format for people with sensitive joints,” says one instructor. “All of the movements are performed as if you were moving through water, creating a sensation of light resistance for each movement.” The slow movements allow participants to easily stop when they encounter pain.
While fluid in nature, the exercises are also weight bearing, which helps maintain muscle strength, which in turn supports the joints and helps to keep bones strong. By moving the joints through a gentle range of motion, synovial fluid lubricates the joints, maintaining or even increasing flexibility.
The study’s researchers also believe that the meditative aspect of Tai Chi, which requires being present in the moment while performing these slow movements, combats chronic pain by “promoting psychological wellbeing, life satisfaction and perceptions of health.”
The Arthritis Foundation offers the following guidelines for those interested in Tai Chi:
- Make sure that you work at your own level
- You can perform tai chi movements while standing or sitting
- Wear comfortable clothing, good footwear, and come with patience and an open and relaxed mind
For more information on the Arthritis Foundation’s Tai Chi program, go to: http://www.arthritis.org/tai-chi.php