Tai chi, also known as tai chi chuan, is an ancient Chinese martial art that in the west has been adapted as a form of low-impact mental and physical exercise. One movement flows into the next in a controlled sequence that you match with breathing. Because tai chi is low impact and gentle, it is an ideal exercise for those with chronic pain, including chronic joint pain that might otherwise make exercise difficult. Here are the most common tai chi benefits for chronic pain patients.
Why is tai chi so valuable for pain patients?
Tai chi, and exercise itself, has a long list of health benefits that you can take advantage of at any age. Participating in a regular exercise routine can minimize, or even prevent, several problems often associated with aging, such as:
- Increased body fat
- Loss of bone mass
- Decreased muscular strength
- Decreased flexibility
- Slower reaction times
Meditative stretching exercises in particular are an important aspect of an exercise routine for those who are older. This is because most forms of exercise focus on strength and endurance. Flexibility training and stretching, in turn, are often neglected.
Flexibility training not only reduces stiffness in the body, but also helps the body to pump blood to muscles and nerves. Dynamic stretching helps alleviate the possibility of aggravation or re-injury if you have any muscular problems. It also helps maintain a good range of motion in your joints. Dynamic stretching utilizes the contraction of antagonist muscles to stretch the targeted muscle.
Envision the two main muscles of your leg working and moving together. As one muscle contracts and shortens, the brain sends a message to the opposite muscle to relax and elongate. Dynamic stretching enhances the body’s ability to safely elongate muscles.
The easiest way to improve your flexibility is with yoga or tai chi. Research is now highlighting the major tai chi benefits for men and women alike, as an effective home exercise option to promote health and well- being. Tai chi benefits can be enjoyed by any age group and across any range of fitness and flexibility. It doesn’t matter what level of flexibility you currently have.
1. Combats anxiety and depression
Multiple studies have shown that people practicing tai chi experience a lift in mood, increased self-confidence, and reduced stress. It’s one of the most important tai chi benefits for many practitioners. Researchers who studied stroke survivors found patients were happier and less stressed. Meanwhile, researchers studying a set of patients who had chronic heart failure came to similar conclusions.
Scientists at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School studied 100 people who had suffered heart failure, with half of them practicing tai chi for one hour, twice each week. The patients experienced profound mental benefits, including increased confidence, which lead to an increase in activity.
Additional research from the University of California, Los Angeles found the practice alleviates depression among the elderly. Other benefits include improved cognitive abilities, increased energy levels, and overall better quality of life.
Finally, a meta-analysis by researchers at Tufts University of 40 studies found that among the 3,817 study participants, tai chi had a remarkable effect on rates of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. Shockingly, these benefits were realized at a minimum of just one hour (although many of the studies recommended more).
In general, tai chi appears to increase a sense of psychological well-being across a variety of participants experiencing a variety of mood or mental disorders. This can be a significant benefit for chronic pain patients, as mood disorders including anxiety and depression occur at much higher rates in this population. If one hour a week of tai chi can help to reverse the effects of dealing with a chronic illness, it’s well worth the time.
2. Improves balance
Tai chi’s slow, controlled movements are just what the doctor ordered when it comes to chronic pain and improving balance. Older adults are more at risk for a fall and a resulting fracture. Fear of falling may cause them to be less active, which in turn makes their muscles less strong and increases the risk of falling. This vicious cycle can be combatted by the slow, stable movements of tai chi. The exercises require gentle core engagement, which improves balance, and many of the transitions require balance on just one leg.
A study presented at an annual American Stroke Association conference found that older adults who practiced tai chi experienced fewer falls that those who didn’t. Preventing falls in stroke survivors is critical because they’re seven times more likely to fall than healthy adults. These falls may result in fractures that can lead to a host of additional health problems.
3. Builds muscle strength
Tai chi involves low impact exercises, and practitioners move into various positions almost constantly, building strength in the knees and muscles without straining them through high impact.
It has also been well documented that weight-bearing exercises strengthen bones and help prevent osteoporosis.
4. Benefits arterial health
Tai chi’s gentle, flowing movements build muscle strength and contribute to arterial health, particularly for older people, found a study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. The practice contributes to arterial health, making sure the arteries are flexible enough to expand and contract depending on the amount of blood flowing through them.
Sometimes arteries become stiff and unresponsive to changes in pressure. This condition has been linked to cardiovascular diseases, and scientists say maintaining arterial flexibility is important for overall heart health.
5. Offers variety within a sequence
Because movements are slow and sequences are set, tai chi builds on itself.
You can master each sequence in sections and add to it as your strength (and confidence) grows. If some find the programmed sequences tedious and want to learn more, there are a number of different “schools” of tai chi. A simple Pinterest search for tai chi sequences can refresh your practice and change it up.
6. Increases flexibility
With regular practice, tai chi begins to loosen muscles and increase flexibility. Many of the movements first contract the muscle before asking it to extend, a move that “signals” the muscle that it is okay to relax. This is crucial to safely improving flexibility and is one of the reasons why practitioners may find their flexibility increasing without much discomfort.
Tai chi’s focus on stability first also helps the body (and the practitioner) to understand that extending out to increase flexibility is safe.
7. Promotes relaxation
Ta chi slows everything down: heart rate, breathing rate, speed of movement. As you go through the sequence with deep, coordinated breath, your brain receives the message that everything is just fine. It is okay to let go, to release the flight response that pain may be sending to your brain. The mind can flow along with the movements of the body.
Many times imagery can be helpful to promote this deep relaxation. Bruce Lee, a famous martial artist, urged people to “be like water”: infinitely adaptable and fluid. Many tai chi teachers use this same imagery of flowing water to help students and practitioners imagine the movements. Some tai chi can even be done in water. This type of tai chi offers more muscle work, as balance may be more challenging and the water resists gently, but it is another way to deeply relax both mind and body.
8. Increases range of motion
The deliberate movements of tai chi, when repeated over time, help increase range of motion in all joints of the body. While some exercises may need to be modified to start, pain patients may see their range of motion increase exponentially with regular tai chi. Those with chronic pain may hesitate to exercise because doing so increases their pain, but this just locks up the joints and muscles and makes it harder to get started.
Tai chi’s movements are gentle and don’t require super human feats (no need to tuck your feet behind your head). Movement can be modified based on pain levels. They should not cause sharp, shooting pain or burning pain (although some pain is to be expected when you are exercising at any level).
As tai chi is practiced over time, pain patients can expect an easier and more improved range of motion within all areas of their bodies.
9. Burn calories
Tai chi began as a martial art and incorporates slow and controlled gentle movements with regulated breathing and focused meditation. Studies now show tai chi promotes cardiovascular fitness while burning about 280-500 calories per hour.
It can result in lowered blood pressure and improved immune system functioning as well. Because tai chi is one of the lowest types of impact exercise there are, many people with arthritis are able to practice this form of exercise with little or no discomfort.
10. Relaxes the wallet
Exercise classes or physical therapy sessions can add up, lightening your wallet while it trims your waist. One of the biggest tai chi benefits is that it low cost, or even free. There are numerous quality videos available for free online, and tai chi requires no special equipment.
You don’t need a special room, special shoes, or anything else to begin. Even if you don’t have access to the internet, the local library will have books on the subject, including exercises and a deeper look at the philosophy. Some local community organizations may even offer free tai chi classes to get you started.
Treatments for chronic pain can add up. Money should not be the reason you avoid an exercise that can have so many benefits.
11. Reduce pain
The gentle, graceful movements of tai chi belie the incredible health benefits this practice bestows practitioners. The ancient Chinese exercise began as a martial art and has evolved into a low-impact exercise benefiting people at all levels of health—even those who suffer from chronic pain or are recovering from an illness.
It’s an important exercise routine for pain patients, because it helps with many aggravating conditions that can lead to pain flare-ups, such as:
- Missed or little sleep
- Weight gain
- Mental health conditions
Tai chi benefits have been linked to impressive health results in all age groups. The combination of martial arts movements and deep breathing can even be adapted for those confined to wheelchairs. This safe form of exercise oftentimes reduces chronic pain and stiffness. Studies have shown that the practice of tai chi can also improve the quality of sleep when practiced regularly. There is also a psychological benefit associated with the practice of tai chi. It has been shown to reduce the incidence of stress, anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.
It never too early or too late to make exercise a habit in your life. With it, you can find a more peaceful mind and a healthier body. Although stretching programs involve gentle exercises with minimal risks, any new form of exercise has the potential to increase your symptoms in the short term. It is important to consult with your health care provider prior to starting any new form of exercise if you have any concerns.
You can find a pain doctor in your area by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.