Tai Chi Shown to Ease Back Pain

Study finds the martial art is an effective treatment for a common complaint.


Research shows that tai chi can be effective for managing the persistent low-back pain that many people experience.

“There is no treatment for persistent, non-specific, low back pain that takes the pain away completely. The best treatments at the moment reduce the pain,” according to study co-author Chris Maher, PhD, director of The George Institute for Global Health and a professor at the University of Sydney, in Australia. “In this study, people experienced a 25 percent reduction in their pain intensity if they completed tai chi [programs]. When we asked a sample if they felt this magnitude of reduction was worthwhile, most said, ‘Yes.’”

This is the first randomized, controlled trial aimed at investigating the effects of the ancient mind/body exercise on the reduction of pain and disability. Previous studies have found that low-back pain affects 80 percent of Americans at some point in their lives and is the fifth most common reason for all doctor visits in the U.S. In most cases, it goes away, but an estimated one-third of cases become chronic. Studies have shown that exercise is one of the more effective non-pharmacologic treatments.

The Australian study, published recently in Arthritis Care & Research, involved 160 participants ages 18 to 70. All had persistent low-back pain of an unspecified origin lasting at least three months. The researchers write this unspecified type of back pain is responsible for 90 to 95 percent of cases.

Seventy-eight study participants took part in 40-minute tai chi classes with a qualified teacher twice a week for eight weeks, and then once a week for two weeks. The other half of the study group continued with their normal fitness and health regimes.

After 10 weeks, the tai chi group reported that, on a 10-point scale, their pain was reduced by 1 point and they found the pain 1.3 points less bothersome. By comparison, the control group experienced an increase in both pain and how bothersome the pain was. The tai chi group also reported greater improvements in their disability levels than the control group.

“In percentage terms, [participants reported] 23 percent [improvement] for pain and 32 percent for disability in the tai chi group,” says Maher.

“We would expect disability to improve because tai chi involves physical activity and exercise, and this would improve people’s ability to do physical tasks around the house, sports, work, etc.,” he adds.

Although this trial didn’t include people with arthritis, the same group of researchers did a systematic review in 2009 of seven randomized, controlled tai chi trials, six of which looked at people with arthritis. Those results showed tai chi had a “small positive effect on pain and disability in people with arthritis,” they wrote.

Scientists believe the positive results last only for as long as patients are taking part in the exercise. This research team is currently applying for funding for a long-term trial to test this issue.

“Even though a 25 percent [improvement] may not seem like a big deal in general, in the pain world it is significant,” says Jennifer Solomon, MD, an assistant attending physiatrist at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery. “What tai chi does, in my opinion, is it works with postural and body awareness. It also works on dynamic stability and core strength, which have in the past shown to decrease load in the lumbar spine.”

She says more research and larger numbers of participants over a longer period are needed to confirm results of this study. Still, she believes tai chi can be a good tool for patients with chronic pain.

“Tai chi is very gentle and is great for any age. It’s not high impact. It’s slow movement. It’s gentle movement,” Dr. Solomon says. “I think tai chi is one piece of a puzzle and I think it’s a good adjunct to other exercise and treatments. Tai chi is fabulous for balance control and body awareness, and I think this study confirms the postiveness of tai chi.”

Tai chi programs are offered in many communities. Look for a program specifically developed for people with arthritis or a similar instructional DVD like Tai Chi for Arthritis available from the Arthritis Foundation.

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