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Tai Chi for Chronic Pain

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

Tai Chi is a gentle form of mind-body exercise that can help reduce symptoms in people with chronic pain. I have been practicing tai chi for over a decade and have also been teaching for years. I have found that tai chi helps reduce pain in my knees, back, neck, and shoulders. The more I practice, the better it gets.

There are many benefits of practicing Tai Chi including:


1) improved strength

2) balance

3) coordination

4) flexibility

5) reduced stress.


The list goes on to include reducing symptoms and improving quality of life for people with many conditions and diseases including these noted by the Harvard Health Blog:


1) osteoarthritis

2) breast cancer

3) heart failure

4) chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious lung condition that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.


These are conditions that many help people have with chronic pain. Therefore, tai chi is a great option to ultimately help you get back to doing the things you love WITH the people you love!


PAIN

So how does Tai Chi reduce pain? To begin with, lets talk briefly about how pain is created. Simply put, pain is created by the brain based on threat. That means that if your brain establishes that there is something that might be an issue in your body and/or mind, pain will be created so that you will take care of the problem. For more on pain science, check out this short 5 minute video:

For example, if you have weakness in your legs, your brain might perceive that as a threat and you may feel pain in your leg, especially if you have tightness or other impairments which can stress the joints.

Another example is if you are very stressed out, your muscles will tighten to try and protect you. This can feel painful and can limit your movement.

Chronic pain can be debilitating. It can prevent you from doing your daily activities, spending time with family, and can cause you to miss work! Low back pain is the leading cause of work-related disability in the U.S. (National Institutes for Health).  A 2014 study indicate that almost one fifth of workers with back pain take some absence over a period of 6 months or longer (Gwenllian Wynne-Jones, et al).

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REDUCING PAIN

There are many approaches to reducing chronic pain. Here we will discuss the top 5 evidence-based ways that I have found to work the best:


1. Reduce the Threat

One of the most important ways to reduce chronic pain is to reduce the brain’s perception of threat. This will in turn reduce your pain.

One way to reduce this threat is to practice Tai Chi. There is lots of research that supports this idea.


Recent studies show that Tai Chi can benefit people with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, tension headache, and other ongoing, painful conditions. 

In one trial, for example, 66 people with fibromyalgia were randomized into two groups: one group took tai chi classes twice a week, the other group attended wellness education and stretching sessions twice a week. After 12 weeks, those in the tai chi group reported less pain, fewer depression symptoms, and better sleep than the control group. (https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-complementary-medicine/tai-chi-and-chronic-pain) .



2. Address the Nervous System

Another factor in chronic pain is a sensitive nervous system.


Let me explain….


The nervous system acts as sort of an alarm system. Think about the alarm system in a house. If a burglar breaks the window, the alarm goes off.


However, when people have chronic pain, it is possible to set off the alarm when a leaf blows into the window. There are more signals going to the brain and the brain is perceiving a greater threat than what it would normally perceive.


We can calm the nervous system with many techniques, the easiest being breathing techniques.


See my previous post 4 Pain Relief Secrets for Back Pain for a detailed description of an easy to perform breathing technique designed to calm the nervous system.


When we practice Tai Chi, we are synchronizing the breath with movement which brings all of the mindbody systems into coherence.


What is coherence?


Here is a good definition from Chopra.com: “Coherence is the state of being highly ordered, organized, and efficient. In a coherent system, all the individual parts are operating in harmony and virtually no energy is lost. It is a state of least effort and maximum benefit because all the individual components are working together rather than against each other.”



General Exercise:

The medical community used to suggest that bed rest was the best thing to do with back pain.


This was a bad idea…


Current guidelines from the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy show strong evidence for incorporating progressive, low-intensity, submaximal fitness and endurance activities into the pain management and health promotion strategies for patients with chronic low back pain with generalized pain…


And…


Moderate- to high-intensity exercise for patients with chronic low back pain without generalized pain.


Guess which exercise mode fits the bill here?


Yes! You guessed it! Although there are many modes of exercise that can apply here, Tai Chi is a great option! It is low impact, low-intensity, and progressively helps to build strength, balance, coordination, and flexibility.


Specific Exercise:

Although performing general strengthening exercises while likely make you feel better, specific exercises can help you get to the source of a bio-mechanical problem.

It may take a little trial and error to figure out which one is right for you. However, my e-book Modern Pain Relief Secrets: Back, Hip and Leg Pain can help you to figure it out. Feel free to sign up for the e-book and start the process of figuring out if there are any specific mechanical issues contributing to your pain!


Nutrition:

One of the most variable fields of study is nutrition. It is constantly changing in what seems like almost every day. From the Mediterranean diet to the Ketogenic diet, its hard to know which diet is right for you.


Shouldn’t I just eat real food?


Yes… and no.


Everyone is different and needs different nutrients at different times in their lives.

As a general rule of thumb, its usually best to eat whole foods including healthy fats and proteins, healthy carbs, adequate water, and plenty of vegetables.


It usually best to avoid processed foods, refined sugar, trans fats, and simple carbs such as white bread and grain-based pasta. These break down very fast and can spike insulin levels leading to weight gain, cravings, and can potentially lead to a lot of other health challenges.


Although having a general diet rich in whole foods and vegetables is important, many people may benefit from an anti-inflammatory diet when they suffer from chronic pain.

To see if an anti-inflammatory diet is for you, CLICK HERE and check out this helpful post from Health.com.


Nutrition

SUMMARY

Tai Chi can help reduce pain and suffering in people with chronic pain. If you haven’t already, join our free Facebook™ group called "Begin with Breath Tai Chi and Therapy" to start learning tai chi and yoga the fun and easy way while building strength, flexibility, and balance. Just tap the link below to request to join...


As you learn to move like nature with gracefulness and flow, you will start to see improvements over time. You will learn how to move with mindfulness and ease while releasing tension and stress.


Although I would always recommend getting a formal evaluation from a physical therapist, this can be a great start. You can begin to integrate Tai Chi into a holistic approach for optimal mindbody health and wellness. It’s a great way to prevent issues from arising. It can also serve as a transition from rehab to a more active lifestyle.



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