Researchers at Tufts University School of Medicine studied 33 people with fibromyalgia, dividing them into two groups. One group attended health classes and learned stretching exercises. The other group learned tai chi — the flowing, meditative movements and breathing exercises that are often described as a “gentle” martial art.
After three months of twice-weekly classes and otherwise practicing 20 minutes a day, those practicing tai chi had less pain, slept better, were less depressed, could exercise more, and felt their overall quality of life was improved. All in all, they had a improvement of 28 points in a 100-point scale measuring fibromyalgia symptoms. The stretching group had a 9-point improvement.
“The potential efficacy and lack of adverse effects make it reasonable for physicians to support patients’ interest in exploring these types of exercises, even if it is too early to take out a prescription pad and write ‘tai chi,’” wrote the researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Why is tai chi so effective in fibromyalgia? In FMS, there is diffuse muscle shortening. But if you try to pull on the muscle to stretch it, it will retract (like a stretched rubber band) — and hurt! With the flowing movements of tai chi, muscles are gently stretched, without a resulting spasm, easing pain.
Tai Chi is also like a tune-up for the body’s energy system — the flow of chi or life energy along the acupuncture meridians. Western medicine may not have a complete understanding of that energy system — but that doesn’t mean it’s not there, and that there aren’t ways to balance and harmonize those energies. Tai chi is one of those ways. So is yoga.
Bottom line: Tai chi may be as effective as medications for pain relief, but at a much lower cost, and without the side effects.
“A randomized trial of tai chi for fibromyalgia.” Wang C, et al. N Engl J Med 2010; 363: 743-754.