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Tai Chi Is as Effective as Physical Therapy for Knee Osteoarthritis

03/12/2015 16:13 GMT | Updated 03/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Tai Chi can help with the symptoms of osteoarthritis - at least as much as standard physical therapy and sometimes more, healthcare professionals at the Annual American College of Rheumatology Meeting (2015) in San Francisco have heard last month.

Osteoarthritis, sometimes known as "wear and tear" arthritis is a condition that tends to occur more with age, and happens when the cartilage that normally protects the joints becomes thinner and worn. This can cause pain and stiffness in the joints, especially the knees, hips, spine and fingers. Dr Chenchen Wang from Tufts University School of Medicine has already shown that Tai Chi can be more effective than stretching for knee osteoarthritis and her latest study has now compared Tai Chi to physical therapy in knee osteoarthritis.

Dr Wang and her team chose 204 people with knee osteoarthritis who had problems with knee pain and stiffness as well as X-ray changes in the knee, and divided them into 2 groups. One group completed 12 weeks of traditional Yang-style Tai Chi twice a week for 12 weeks which included a warm-up, meditation with Tai Chi movement, breathing techniques and relaxation. The other group had a musculoskeletal examination, personalised physical therapy with goals and practice reminders for 6 weeks followed by 6 weeks of exercises at home.

Both groups had similar participants with an average age of 60 and all participants had been having pain from their arthritis for around 8 years. After 12 weeks and 52 weeks, both groups were compared.

Both groups reduced the amount of pain medication that they needed to take. Both groups also had less pain and stiffness and better function after their therapy but the benefits were greatest in the group who had tried Tai Chi. These people also noticed a beneficial effect on their mood.

Dr Wang has been quoted as saying: "The value of Tai Chi goes beyond physical therapy because it includes movement, meditation, mindfulness, breathing, social support, and strength training." She also suggests that Tai Chi could be considered as an option for treating knee osteoarthritis but cautions that it is vital to find an experienced instructor who is used to seeing people with osteoarthritis.

Tai Chi is an ancient form of martial arts developed in China at least 800 years ago. Although there are still versions of Tai Chi which use weapons, most people will be more familiar with the Tai Chi now performed as an exercise to improve health all around the world and will have seen images of individuals or groups of sometimes very elderly people in parks performing graceful movements and postures, often early in the morning.

Tai Chi was developed from Qigong (pronounced chee gong), which combines breathing exercises, relaxation or meditation and movements to create a state of calm and balance in the body. There are many different types of Tai Chi; the most common are Yang and Wu which both use a series of slow and gentle flowing movements and postures, often balancing on one leg, that are performed without stopping.

In China, there are many claims that Tai Chi can delay ageing and prevent many diseases but there is not much medical evidence to support this. There is evidence though that practising movements and balance with Tai Chi can improve muscle strength, flexibility and balance and therefore reduce the risk of falls in older people.

Tai Chi has also been shown to improve flexibility and reduce pain in the hips, knees and ankles in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

It is already known that improving muscle strength around the knee and hip joints can significantly reduce the pain of osteoarthritis, and also that meditation can help with pain. It is therefore easy to appreciate that any exercise involving balancing which will increase muscle strength and flexibility and therefore help with stiff joints plus meditation or relaxation such as Tai Chi, is very likely to help with the pain of osteoarthritis, especially in the knees. Tai Chi may also help with reducing stress and if done in a group could improve confidence and help reduce isolation.

Tai Chi can be safely performed at any age and is a very slow and low impact exercise which won't put any stress on painful joints. No special equipment is needed and it can be done in a small space indoors or outdoors, alone or in a group. People with arthritis should seek medical advice prior to starting a new type of exercise and make sure that they find an experienced class or instructor.

As part of its self-management approach, Arthritis Action encourages people living with arthritis to do regular exercise which helps with the pain and stiffness associated with the condition. Its members are especially encouraged to carry out simple stretching exercises and join Tai Chi classes to help improve balance and mobility.