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Tai Chi Can Aid Arthritis Sufferers

New research shows ancient Eastern exercise helps ease the pain, improves balance

FRIDAY, Dec. 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- As anyone who suffers arthritis will tell you, exercise can be a necessary, but painful, part of treatment.

Now, a study of 72 arthritis sufferers from South Korea suggests that the ancient form of martial arts known as Tai Chi can offer crucial health benefits to these patients, without the pain normally associated with other exercise.

"It's very difficult for osteoarthritis patients to do any type of exercise, because exercise could make their symptoms worse," says lead author Rhayun Song.

Tai Chi involves a series of graceful movements and poses that some describe as a dance in slow motion. Once mastered, the movements are believed to improve balance, circulation and muscle function.

Apart from swimming, which can be difficult and costly, experts say Tai Chi is one of the only fitness activities that arthritis patients can safely perform without increasing their pain or risk of injury.

"Tai Chi is proven quite safe for their symptoms, and best about this exercise is that they don't need any equipment or [special] clothes. They can do Tai Chi ... any time during their daily life," says Song.

Among the most important benefits of Tai Chi, says Song, is improved balance. This can reduce the risk of falls, particularly for the elderly.

"Elderly people with osteoarthritis are quite vulnerable to falls, and this is one of [the] great health risks later [in] life," says Song.

For Dr. James Dillard, who has studied the medical benefits of Tai Chi, the research is important. But he adds, the study group was too small to jump to any clinical conclusions.

"I think any type of exercise an arthritis patient can safely and easily perform is bound to offer benefits, and so far we don't know if Tai Chi has any specific benefits over and above other types of regular movement, such as stretching," says Dillard.

However, he concedes it's likely that Tai Chi may provide some benefits that have yet to be medically understood.

"My Western medical training tells me that Tai Chi should not offer anything more than any other form of exercise; my Eastern training reminds me that not all benefits can be easily measured," Dillard says.

The South Korean study involved 72 osteoarthritis patients. Each person was sent to a sports medicine center for a series of computerized tests designed to measure balance and muscle strength of the back, knees and abdomen, as well as grip strength. Additional testing was performed to determine functional status, along with levels of pain and stiffness.

Patients were then randomly assigned to one of two groups: 38 took Tai Chi classes for 12 weeks; 34 received standard treatment, mainly pain medication.

Although the dropout rate was high -- only 22 patients completed the classes and 21 were left in the control group -- researchers say enough data was collected to analyze the results.

After re-testing the people, Song says that the patients who took the Tai Chi classes showed more improvement in symptoms, balance and functioning, and abdominal strength.

Although increases in flexibility and knee muscle strength were also seen in the Tai Chi group, they were not considered statistically significant. However, Song is certain that will change when larger study groups are used.

"We need a bigger sample size to buffer individual differences and find out the significant difference between groups," says Song.

Dillard also believes a larger study group will show whether Tai Chi is better than other forms of exercise for arthritis sufferers.

"Improved balance is an important benefit from Tai Chi, but it would be important to discover whether or not it can also offer other benefits to arthritis patients, particularly an increase in muscle strength, which might help decrease some pain," says Dillard.

Study results were presented at the recent annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in San Francisco.

In a second, unrelated study, also presented at the conference, a group of Chinese researchers offered evidence that Tai Chi may help women with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that damages the joints. Although the study is ongoing, researchers say preliminary data suggests Tai Chi may offer these women increased cardiovascular functioning, as well as an increase in grip strength.

"I believe that as we go forward with testing on Tai Chi, we may come to see a great many more benefits for patients with many different types of medical problems," Dillard says.

What To Do

To learn more about Tai Chi, click here.

To learn more about osteoarthritis, visit The Arthritis Foundation.

SOURCES: Rhayun Song, R.N., Ph.D, Department of Nursing, Soonchunhyang University, Republic of Korea; James Dillard, M.D., director, alternative medicine, Oxford Health Plans, and clinical medical advisor, Rosenthal Center of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Columbia University, also assistant clinical professor, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City; Nov. 12-15, 2001, annual meeting, American College of Rheumatology, San Francisco
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