Tai Chi Therapy for Osteoarthritis
Osteoarthritis is a progressive and degenerative condition of the weight bearing joints in our bodies. Osteoarthritis is one of the fastest growing conditions in our society today behind diabetes and dementia. In Canada, more than 3 million people or 1 in 10 Canadians are affected by osteoarthritis according to The Arthritis Society.
What is Osteoarthritis?
It mainly affects our knees or hips as these joints bear most of the weight of our bodies but it can also affect the spine, neck, hands and feet. The OARSI or Osteoarthritis Research Society International anticipates that as our society ages, the incidence of osteoarthritis will increase.
Our aging population is most at risk but people with excessive weight and women are more prone to osteoarthritis as well. Joint injuries and abnormally high stress applied repetitively to joints are also causes of osteoarthritis. Elite athletes, professional musicians, heavy machine operators and construction workers are some of the people who are at risk based on the nature of these activities.
While osteoarthritis means inflammation of the joints and the typical symptoms are painful, swollen and stiff joints, the actual condition is defined by OARSI as the body’s failed attempt to repair joint tissue. Mainly, the cartilage at our joints wear down and the exposed bone starts to friction and deteriorate leading to ill repair of the joint tissue or osteoarthritis.
Medication can help manage pain and inflammation but it can’t stop the progression. Osteoarthritis is best managed by avoiding activities which place undue repetitive stress on our bodies and managing our weight. Most importantly, physical activity is the key to maintaining healthy joints and preventing injury whether we’re trying to prevent or even slow the progression of osteoarthritis. Even though people with osteoarthritis experience joint pain and it sounds counterintuitive to them, physical exercise of joints is exactly what is needed.
What Affects Healthy or Unhealthy Joints
Let’s consider the anatomy of our joints. Our joints are made of strong tissues such as cartilage, ligaments and other connective fibres bathed in fluids which reduce friction within the joint. The tissues are supported by our muscles and muscle tendons.
To look after our joints, we want to care for all these parts of our joints. Obviously, we want to be sure to eat well so that we have the nutrients to maintain healthy muscle and tissue. We want to avoid activities which exert abnormal pressure on our joints and this includes improper alignment of our joints. Misalignment of our joints plus repetitive use of the joint often causes parts of our joints to rub together in unintended ways which hastens the degenerative process.
We typically underestimate the importance of posture and alignment to our physical well-being and health. Poor posture and alignment is a major contributor to premature degeneration of our body including knees, spines and hips. We know that biomechanics is proper posture with movement which leverages our body structure with ease and minimal stress to our body structures. When we use the wrong posture with a movement, we place excessive stress on our body structures which causes the type of degeneration that leads to conditions such as osteoarthritis.
Finally, excessive weight also contributes to more stress on our joints, misalignments and the degeneration of joints. Increasing physical activity to reduce weight is important to reducing pain and pressure on our joints.
Multitudes of people with osteoarthritis have used painkillers (analgesics) and NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) to reduce pain, swelling and stiffness for their arthritic joints. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cure osteoarthritis or slow the progression of osteoarthritis.
When a person has osteoarthritis, the last thing they might want to do is more physical activity because the joints are in pain. But, physical activity is exactly what we need to maintain the health of our joints and especially the muscles which support our joints.
Originally, physical therapy followed by remedial exercises were recommended to people with osteoarthritis. It definitely helped but with the rapid rise of osteoarthritis among the aging population, various forms of physical activity were studied for their impact on people with osteoarthritis.
Studies about the Effects of Tai Chi on Osteoarthritis
In the Harvard Health Publication, a study of tai chi vs. strength & stretch exercises were compared. Tai chi participants saw improved muscle strength, coordination which led to a more stable joint and calmness due to the “moving meditation” qualities of tai chi practice. Mental calmness is often another way to reduce pain due to our ability to calm our nerves and reduce the stimulation of pain.
This randomized control trial of 40 people consisted of 20 people practicing tai chi for 60 minutes twice weekly for 12 weeks and another 20 people practicing wellness education and stretching exercises. The conclusion showed that people in the tai chi practice group showed reduced pain, self-efficacy, improved joint function, reduced depression and better overall health than the other group.
In a study to compare physical therapy vs. tai chi on knee osteoarthritis, 204 participants with a mean age of 60 years were evaluated over 52 weeks. It seems that tai chi is on par with physical therapy when it comes to pain reduction and various other secondary outcomes including physical function, depression, medication use, and quality of life. However, tai chi participants experienced greater improvements with depression and their overall physical quality of life.
Enjoy Tai Chi for Better Stability & Joint Health due to Osteoarthritis
People who practice tai chi get stronger overall with improved balance and coordination so people are more stable on their feet and don’t fall as often which prevents secondary health issues. A tai chi studio provides a social environment with a community of people who encourage and support each other so people don`t feel alone in their quest to lead a healthy lifestyle.
Tai Chi movements are performed slowly and flow smoothly from one move to the next. People pay careful attention to each move aiming to assure proper posture, alignment and balance is practiced. When practicing movement in this manner, people achieve several objectives all at once:
Avoiding aggravation of the joints due to its low impact nature
Improving range of motion or joint mobility and flexibility
Conditioning and strength for the surrounding muscles including smaller postural muscles
Improving their cardio health
A traditional tai chi form has over 80 moves that require approximately 20 - 30 minutes to complete. It’s like walking across a frozen pond for 20 - 30 minutes. While one or two steps are not physically intense, continuation of the activity for 20 – 30 minutes does exhaust and challenge our bodies both mentally and physically while providing a surprisingly good cardio workout.