MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

tai chi

In alternative medicine, good evidence is like gold dust and good evidence showing that alternative therapies are efficacious is even rarer. Therefore, I was delighted to come across a brand-new article from an institution that should stand for reliable information: the NIH, no less.

According to its authors, this new article “examines the clinical trial evidence for the efficacy and safety of several specific approaches—acupuncture, manipulation, massage therapy, relaxation techniques including meditation, selected natural product supplements (chondroitin, glucosamine, methylsulfonylmethane, S-adenosylmethionine), tai chi, and yoga—as used to manage chronic pain and related disability associated with back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, neck pain, and severe headaches or migraines.”

The results of this huge undertaking are complex, of course, but in a nutshell they are at least partly positive for alternative medicine. Specifically, the authors state that “based on a preponderance of positive trials vs negative trials, current evidence suggests that the following complementary approaches may help some patients manage their painful health conditions: acupuncture and yoga for back pain; acupuncture and tai chi for OA of the knee; massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit; and relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine. Weaker evidence suggests that massage therapy, SM, and osteopathic manipulation might also be of some benefit to those with back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help those with fibromyalgia.”

This is excellent news! Finally, we have data from an authoritative source showing that some alternative treatments can be recommended for common pain conditions.

Hold on, not so fast! Yes, the NIH is a most respectable organisation, but we must not blindly accept anything of importance just because it appears to come form a reputable source. Let’s look a bit closer at the actual evidence provided by the authors of this paper.

Reading the article carefully, it is impossible not to get troubled. Here are a few points that concern me most:

  • the safety of a therapy cannot be evaluated on the basis of data from RCTs (particularly as it has been shown repeatedly that trials of alternative therapies often fail to report adverse effects); much larger samples are needed for that; any statements about safety in the aims of the paper are therefore misplaced;
  • the authors talk about efficacy but seem to mean effectiveness;
  • the authors only included RCTs from the US which must result in a skewed and incomplete picture;
  • the article is from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health which is part of the NIH but which has been criticised repeatedly for being biased in favour of alternative medicine;
  • not all of the authors seem to be NIH staff, and I cannot find a declaration of conflicts of interest;
  • the discussion of the paper totally lacks any critical thinking;
  • there is no assessment of the quality of the trials included in this review.

My last point is by far the most important. A summary of this nature that fails to take into account the numerous limitations of the primary data is, I think, as good as worthless. As I know most of the RCTs included in the analyses, I predict that the overall picture generated by this review would have changed substantially, if the risks of bias in the primary studies had been accounted for.

Personally, I find it lamentable that such a potentially worthy exercise ended up employing such lousy methodology. Perhaps even more lamentable is the fact that the NIH (or one of its Centers) can descend that low; to mislead the public in this way borders on scientific misconduct and is, in my view, unethical and unacceptable.

Tai Chi has been suggested to have many health benefits. Might it even prolong life? There are many enthusiasts who claim just that, but is there any evidence?

This study is a retrospective cross-sectional investigation to compare the rejuvenating and anti-ageing effects among a Tai Chi group (TCC) and a brisk walking group (BW) and a no exercise habit group (NEH) of volunteers. Thirty-two participants were separated into three groups: the TCC group (practicing TC for more than 1 year), the BW group (practicing BW for more than 1 year), and the NEH group. The CD34+ cell counts in peripheral blood of the participants was determined, and the Kruskal‐Wallis test was used to evaluate and compare the antiaging effects of the three groups. The results show that the participants in the TCC group (N = 10) outperformed the NEH group (N = 12) with respect to the number of CD34+ progenitor cells. No significant difference was found between the TCC group and the BW group. The authors of this study conclude that TCC practice sustained for more than 1 year may be an intervention against aging as effective as BW in terms of its benefits on the improvement of CD34+ number.

I was alerted to this new paper by several rather sensational headlines in the daily press which stated that Tai chi (TC) had anti-aging effects. So I searched for the press release about the article where I found the following quotes:

“It is possible that Tai Chi may prompt vasodilation and increase blood flow,” said Lin. “Considering that BW may require a larger space or more equipment, Tai Chi seems to be an easier and more convenient choice of anti-aging exercise.” “This study provides the first step into providing scientific evidence for the possible health benefits of Tai Chi.” said Dr. Paul R. Sanberg, distinguished professor at the Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, Morsani College of Medicine, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL. “Further study of how Tai Chi can elicit benefit in different populations and on different parameters of aging are necessary to determine its full impact.”

Personally, I find both the press release and the original conclusions of the authors quite amazing. If anyone wanted to write a textbook on how not to do such things, he/she could use them as excellent examples.

Seen with just a tinge of critical thinking the paper reports a flimsy case-control study comparing three obviously self-selected groups of people who had chosen to follow different exercise regimen for several months. In all likelihood they also differed in terms of life-style, nutrition, sleeping pattern, alcohol intake, smoking habits and a million other things. These rather tiny groups were then compared according to a surrogate measure for ageing and some differences were identified.

BIG DEAL!

To conclude from this, or even to imply, that TC has anti-ageing effects is as far-fetched as claiming the tooth fairy has money problems.

This story could be just funny or trivial or boring – however, I think, it is also a bit worrying. It shows, I fear, how uncritical researchers in conjunction with some naïve press officer are able to induce silly journalists and headline-writers to mislead the public.

In China (and increasingly elsewhere too), the gentle, meditative exercise of tai chi is being promoted and used for disease prevention, particularly for the prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD). But are these exercises effective? We carried out a Cochrane review to find out.

We searched both English language and Asian electronic databases as well as trial registers and reference lists for relevant studies. No language restrictions were applied. We considered randomised clinical trials (RCTs) of tai chi lasting at least three months and involving healthy adults or adults at high risk of CVD. The comparison groups received no or only minimal interventions. Our outcome measures were CVD clinical events and CVD risk factors. We excluded trials involving multifactorial lifestyle interventions or focusing on weight loss. Two reviewers independently selected trials for inclusion, abstracted the data and assessed the risk of bias of each included study.

We identified 13 trials with a total of 1520 participants and three on-going studies. All of them had at least one domain with unclear risk of bias, and some were at high risk of bias. Duration and style of tai chi differed between trials. Seven studies recruited 903 healthy participants, the other studies recruited people with hypertension, elderly people at high risk of falling, and people with ‘liver or kidney yin deficiency syndromes’.

No studies reported on cardiovascular mortality, all-cause mortality or non-fatal events as most studies were short-term. There was also considerable heterogeneity between studies, which meant that it was not possible to combine studies statistically for cardiovascular risk. Nine trials measured systolic blood pressure (SBP), and 6 of them found reductions in SBP. Two trials found no clear evidence of a difference, and one trial found an increase in SBP with tai chi. A similar pattern was seen for diastolic blood pressure (DBP): three trials found a reduction in DBP, while three found no clear evidence of a difference.

Three trials reported lipid levels and two found reductions in total cholesterol, LDL-C and triglycerides, while the third study found no clear evidence of a difference between groups on lipid levels. Quality of life was measured in only one trial: tai chi improved quality of life at three months. None of the included trials reported on adverse events, costs or occurrence of type 2 diabetes.

From these findings, we drew the following conclusions: “There are currently no long-term trials examining tai chi for the primary prevention of CVD. Due to the limited evidence available currently no conclusions can be drawn as to the effectiveness of tai chi on CVD risk factors. There was some suggestion of beneficial effects of tai chi on CVD risk factors but this was not consistent across all studies. There was considerable heterogeneity between the studies included in this review and studies were small and at some risk of bias. Results of the ongoing trials will add to the evidence base but additional longer-term, high-quality trials are needed.”

These findings are somewhat disappointing. Tai chi might convey many health benefits, but whether a reduction of cardiovascular risk is amongst them seems doubtful. Even if a risk reduction were established beyond doubt, one would need to ask whether its effect size is larger than that achievable through regular conventional exercise. In my view, this is unlikely.

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