Tai Chi for Chronic Pain Patients

If you suffer from chronic pain, then your doctor has probably told you to stay active. Remaining sedentary can lead to many other health conditions like poor emotional health, joint immobility and muscle pain that can exacerbate your primary pain condition. Your doctor may have recommended low-impact exercises like walking, swimming or yoga, but one great form of exercise for chronic pain is Tai Chi.

Practiced in the East for centuries, Tai Chi is a kind of martial art that is practiced in slow motion. Tai Chi improves flexibility, muscle strength, coordination, balance and stamina. This form of exercise has been shown to help people with arthritis, fibromyalgia, and tension headaches.

A Brief History of Tai Chi

Tai Chi has roots that go back up to 3,000 years, but this martial art has slowly evolved down through the millennia. Originally developed by a Taoist monk, Tai Chi is a form of martial art that combines fighting techniques with breathing methods and meditation. Although Tai Chi is intended as a form of self-defense, it has some roots in traditional Chinese medicine.

Chinese medicine posits that qi is the lifeforce that flows through the human body. If qi is in alignment and flowing as it should, then you are healthy. Qigong, one of the key influences of Tai Chi, is a discipline that strives to bring into balance this qi by involving mind, movement and breath.

Modern Tai Chi arose about four centuries ago. Chen Wangting is considered the first to design and practice this modern form. From the Chen style arose other schools that evolved the discipline. Today, there are five main schools of Tai Chi.

In modern China, Tai Chi is virtually the national sport. Practiced by millions both in China and around the world, Tai Chi is primarily used as a way to relieve stress, enhance spiritual wellness and improve all-around health.

How Tai Chi Is Practiced

Present day Tai Chi primarily consists of four components: Qigong, Form, Pushing Hands and Application.

  1. Qigong—this is a set of movements that assist in the flow of qi, an energy in the body. Qigong achieves this by promoting relaxation and deep breathing.
  2. Form—this flowing sequence of movements may last from 5 to 20 minutes. In addition to building physical skill and health, the Form is a kind of meditation that promotes spiritual wellness.
  3. Pushing Hands—this is an interactive kind of exercise, in which you are partnered with another student. It is intended to improve sensitivity and coordination.
  4. Application—this is an advanced form of Tai Chi in which you will explore the deeper subtleties of the discipline. Applications further advance coordination, spatial and body awareness, and sensitivity.

In addition to the physical exercises, you will also be instructed in visualization and meditation.

The Key Benefits of Tai Chi

You may be wondering why so many health care professionals recommend Tai Chi to chronic pain patients. This gentle workout has many benefits for chronic pain patients as well as those without health conditions, including

  • Strength—you can greatly improve muscular strength, especially in the lower body, in a relatively short period of time. One study found significant improvement in muscle strength after just six weeks of Tai Chi.
  • Flexibility—along with muscle strength, the gentle, expansive movements of Tai Chi also stretch out key muscle groups and joints. This enables more flow of blood to important tissues and promotes healing.
  • Endurance—the long, languorous movements of Tai Chi may not appear that strenuous, but over a session they can be quite exhausting.  These gentle motions produce enough exertion that your cardiovascular system is stretched and strengthened.
  • Stress relief—the meditative movements of Tai Chi provide a spiritual focus that blocks out the mental burdens of daily life.  Most practitioners claim that the gentle motions combined with rhythmic breathing produce a deep calmness.
  • Improved posture—the spiraling and flowing motions involved help unknot key muscle groups, allowing you to assume a more natural and healthier posture. This improved posture can promote respiration and digestion.
  • Better mood—studies show that Tai Chi can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Scientists believe that the controlled breathing and flowing movements enhance production of mood-regulating hormones.
  • Restful sleep—several studies show that Tai Chi has a beneficial impact on sleep. One study found sleep quality improvement among young people with anxiety after just 10 weeks of Tai Chi, while another reported sleep quality improvement among seniors who took 2 months of Tai Chi classes.
  • Improved cognition—many older practitioners of Tai Chi report improved memory, mental acuity and problem solving ability after engaging in Tai Chi.
  • Pain symptom relief—a 2018 study found that fibromyalgia patients who engaged in Tai Chi for 52 weeks had more pain symptom improvement than those who practiced aerobics for a similar period.

How to Start Tai Chi

At this point you may be convinced that Tai Chi is something that could help you, but you may be unsure where to begin. An easy way to dip your toes in is to find a few videos online that show what Tai Chi is, what classes are like, or independent beginner sessions. You may find some instructional videos and try it out on your own.

If you would like to join a class, you may find one at a senior center or fitness facility. If you still have questions, you may want to talk to the instructor or observe a class. Some schools may offer one-on-one instruction as well.

Before you start Tai Chi, you should talk to your physician first about any health issues that could interfere. Your doctor may recommend that you keep a journal to monitor your progress and keep track of any issues that could arise.

As you practice Tai Chi, pay close attention to your body. If you become dizzy, faint or unwell, stop immediately and speak with your doctor. If you experience severe soreness or fatigue, skip a session.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.