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Ancient tai chi tackles modern fibromyalgia

15 Jan 2013
Ancient tai chi tackles modern fibromyalgia  article image

Tai chi, the centuries-old Chinese martial art, is a low-impact method for strengthening the body's muscular, skeletal, and organ systems while the emphasis on breathing and inner stillness relieves stress and anxiety.

As an added bonus, it burns more calories than surfing and nearly as many as downhill skiing.

Studies have shown tai chi may help lower cholesterol, improve cardiovascular and respiratory function, reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), reduce the severity of diabetes, as well as help reduce pain and improve knee function among seniors with osteoarthritis.

Now a new study shows that tai chi’s slow, repetitive movements can be more beneficial than traditional stretching exercises in relieving the pain caused by fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by extensive muscle pain lasting for at least three months coupled with heavy fatigue. Other symptoms include problems with cognitive function and memory and concentration, as well as sleep disturbances and stiffness.

The condition affects between 2 and 4 percent of the world’s population with most of the victims being women.

Research conducted by Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, US and appearing in the recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, followed a small group of fibromyalgia patients through three months of tai chi lessons, gauging pain and depression along the way.

Participants attended two hour-long tai chi classes a week and were encouraged to practice on their own at least 20 minutes per day. A control group received simple stretching classes.

To assess the effectiveness of both treatments, the researchers used multiple assessment tools. One such test measured fibromyalgia symptoms on a 100-point scale, showing that those participants who were assigned the tai chi track showed a significant improvement (28 points) over the control group (9 points).

"Aside from reductions in pain, patients in the tai chi group reported improvements in mood, quality of life, sleep, self-efficacy and exercise capacity," said study leader Dr Chenchen Wang. "They feel better. People said it changed their life. Only two or three feel it didn't help."

The next step is to conduct the study using a larger group for a longer period and perhaps comparing different exercise modalities, such as yoga and pilates – both of which incorporate stretching.

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