Tai Chi for Chronic Pain

Updated: Dec 27, 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:

Understanding Pain

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) .


Results from this were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.


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.