Can T'ai Chi help fibromyalgia

BSc in Health Studies, Dip.Nut
Ask Earle

15 August 2017

What is T’ai Chi?

T’ai Chi was originally developed as a non-competitive martial art in China, and now it is used as a moving meditation that incorporates deep breathing, flowing movements, and relaxation. It incorporates physical, psychosocial, emotional, spiritual, and behavioural elements.

T’ai Chi is a gentle, low-impact form of movement that is designed to be easy on the joints. Anybody can do T’ai Chi, although it is always best to check with your doctor if you have any underlying health conditions before exercising.

According to the NHS, T’ai Chi can also help improve mobility in the ankle, hip and knee joints in people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, however, it is not yet known if it can reduce arthritic pain.

Health benefits of T’ai Chi

• Better bone health
Although T’ai Chi exercises are minimal weight bearing, studies have reported better bone health and less bone fractures among post-menopausal women who practiced T’ai Chi than those who did not.2

• Improved circulation
Any form of exercise is beneficial for blood circulation, and T’ai Chi is no exception. While the exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, one theory suggests that it occurs as a result of reduced blood flow to parts of the brain that help the body to process pain.3

Even if blood circulation is not the cause of fibromyalgia improving your circulation can help with other symptoms, such as fatigue. Boosting your circulation can help prevent fatigue because it provides your organs and muscles with more freshly oxygenated blood which can then be used to produce energy.

• Better balance
T’ai Chi incorporates exercises that challenge your sense of balance. The muscles in the feet are strengthened and stability is developed. This leads to an overall sense of stability and security in the body and reduces the likelihood of falls.

T’ai Chi helps to improve proprioception; the ability to sense the position of your body in space. This function declines over time naturally; T’ai Chi helps to stretch receptors in the muscles and ligament and develops the function of sensory neurons in the inner ear.4

As well as improving proprioception, it also improves strength and flexibility which makes it easier to recover from injuries.

• Reduced inflammation
A study published in Biological Psychiatry found that T’ai Chi reduced inflammation and helped to reduce insomnia symptoms.5 The study found that T’ai chi reduced inflammation at a cellular level by reversing the activation of inflammatory signalling pathways.

How can T’ai Chi help fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is not a joint disease (like arthritis) it is a muscular disorder that causes significant pain, stiffness and fatigue. Although the exact cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, it is thought to be related to abnormal levels of chemicals in the brain and changes in the way the central nervous system processes pain messages carried around the body. Physically and emotionally stressful events are also thought to trigger the condition.

Learning how to manage pain effectively is a big part of living with fibromyalgia. Taking conventional medications prescribed by your doctor, exercising, and getting enough sleep are all important factors that can contribute to effective pain management. Herbal remedies can also be beneficial in pain management. Devil’s Claw can help relieve muscle and joint pain, and it can be used alongside other pain medications as it doesn’t have the same side effects.

While there is no one cure for fibromyalgia, gentle exercising, herbal remedies and conventional treatments are recommended to alleviate severe symptoms.

One of the most common symptoms of fibromyalgia is chronic pain which can make exercising challenging. This means that high intensity exercise is probably not your best option for fibromyalgia. T’ai Chi is a great alternative because it encourages you to be mindful and is gentle on the body because it involves minimal weight-bearing.

T’ai Chi helps not only physical health; it helps to improve mental health too. One study found that 12 weeks of T’ai Chi helped to relieve longstanding fibromyalgia symptoms and improved quality of life.6 The rate of improvement was gradual, taking around 8 weeks to show the benefits. Around 20% of those in the study did not feel that T’ai Chi helped fibromyalgia symptoms, however, 60% saw improvement.

Studies have found that exercising regularly can actually alter how we experience pain. The research found that the release of endorphins during a workout help to reduce pain and lift our mood.7 These chemicals can also help to reduce other associated symptoms of fibromyalgia, such as fatigue and depression.

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Getting started

Starting any new form of exercise can be a little bit daunting and it can be difficult to know what to expect, but don’t let this stop you! If conventional treatments for fibromyalgia aren’t offering you relief, T’ai Chi could be worth a try.


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