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posted: 8/22/2011 6:00 AM

Tai chi may lessen rheumatoid arthritis symptoms

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Practicing tai chi on a regular basis may significantly improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. There have been a number of studies demonstrating the benefits of tai chi for the symptoms of osteoarthritis including joint pain, stiffness and weakness. A recent medical study demonstrated that the benefits of tai chi extend beyond simply reducing symptoms.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease characterized by significant joint pain, fatigue and weakness. Over time the destruction of the joints can become so severe as to cause significant deformity. Although most patients with rheumatoid arthritis experience primarily joint pain, other organs in the body can be affected. Rheumatoid arthritis is most common in people between the ages of 40 and 50 years old and affects about 1 percent of the population.

Women are usually affected three to four times more often than men. Destruction of the joint and weakening of the muscles ligaments and tendons surrounding the joint is common. Ultimately the joint becomes too weak for normal activity and, if untreated, the patient is eventually incapacitated.

There are a number of medical therapies that can slow the progress of rheumatoid arthritis. These include anti-inflammatory medications, steroids, powerful disease modifying medications like methotrexate and biologic agents specifically targeting the immune system.

However, side effects significantly limit their use. Fortunately, physical therapies are beneficial for rheumatoid arthritis and reduce the need for medication. There is robust data to indicate that maintaining physical activity can improve the long-term outcomes of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Long-term compliance with exercise programs is a problem, but with tai chi exercises compliance is better.

Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that is practiced primarily for health benefits. The movements are characterized as slow, methodical and repetitive. This type of activity seems to be perfect for strengthening the tissues around joints, improving balance and strength, and reducing pain. Over the past two decades, there is significant research published in the medical literature on the benefits of tai chi for arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

A recent medical study published in the medical journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders re-examined the use of tai chi exercises in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The study was different because not only did they look at the physical benefits of tai chi, but also they explored why with rheumatoid arthritis people practiced tai chi. This is important because compliance with any physical therapy program, over time, is essential with rheumatoid arthritis patients.

What they found was that there was the expected improvement in physical function, but that patients also felt better, mentally, after practicing tai chi. The stress levels were lower, energy levels were higher and overall mental outlook was brighter. Patients continued to practice tai chi because they simply felt better.

I strongly agree with the results of the study. In my experience, martial art based exercises not only improve the physical condition, but in many cases have positive impact on the mental and emotional state. It simply feels good.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network.

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