Tai Chi, as we know it in the West, is said to promote the smooth flow of “energy” throughout the body by performing postures, slow meditative movements and controlled breathing. Tai Chi is also supposed to help increasing flexibility, suppleness, balance and coordination. According to enthusiasts, the smooth, gentle movements of Tai Chi aid relaxation and help to keep the mind calm and focused.
Tai Chi has become popular in Western countries and is being considered for a surprisingly wide range of conditions. The patient/consumer is taught to perform postures, slow meditative movements and controlled breathing. The concepts underlying Tai Chi are strange, but that does not necessarily mean that the treatment is not effective for certain illnesses or symptoms.
There has been a surprising amount of research in this area, and some studies have generated encouraging results. A recent study which is unfortunately not available electronically ( Wu, WF; Muheremu, A; Chen, CH; Liu, WG; Sun, L. Effectiveness of Tai Chi Practice for Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain on Retired Athletes: A Randomized Controlled Study. JOURNAL OF MUSCULOSKELETAL PAIN 2013, 21:1, p.37-45) tested the effectiveness of Tai Chi for chronic back pain. Specifically, the researchers wanted to determine whether regular Tai Chi practice is superior to other means of sports rehabilitation in relieving non-specific chronic low back pain [LBP] in a younger population. They randomized 320 former athletes suffering from chronic LBP into a treatment [tai chi practice] and several control groups [regular sessions with swimming, backward walking or jogging, or no such interventions]. At the beginning, middle, and end of a six-month intervention, patients from all groups completed questionnaires assessing the intensity of LBP; in addition, a physical examination was conducted.
After 3 and 6 months, no statistically significant difference in the intensity of LBP was demonstrated between the Tai Chi and swimming. However, significant differences were demonstrated between the Tai Chi and backward walking, jogging, and no exercise groups.
The authors’ concluded that “Tai chi has better efficacy than certain other sports on the treatment of non-specific chronic LBP.”
This is only the second RCT of Tai chi for back pain. The first such study consisted of 160 volunteers between ages 18 and 70 years with persistent nonspecific low back pain. The experimental group (n = 80) had 18 Tai Chi sessions over a 10-week period. The waitlist control group continued with their usual health care. Bothersomeness of symptoms was the primary outcome, and secondary outcomes included pain intensity and pain-related disability. Tai Chi reduced bothersomeness of back symptoms by 1.7 points on a 0-10 scale, reduced pain intensity by 1.3 points on a 0-10 scale, and improved self-report disability by 2.6 points on the 0-24 Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire scale. The authors of this RCT concluded that a 10-week Tai Chi program improved pain and disability outcomes and can be considered a safe and effective intervention for those experiencing long-term low back pain symptoms.
My own team have conducted their fair share of Tai Chi research. Specifically,we have published several systematic reviews of Tai Chi as an adjunctive or supportive treatment of various conditions, and the conclusions (in italics) have been mixed.
DIABETES: The existing evidence does not suggest that tai chi is an effective therapy for type 2 diabetes.
HYPERTENSION: The evidence for tai chi in reducing blood pressure in the elderly individuals is limited.
BREAST CANCER: the existing trial evidence does not show convincingly that tai chi is effective for supportive breast cancer care.
IMPROVEMENT OF AEROBIC EXCERCISE CAPACITY: the existing evidence does not suggest that regular tai chi is an effective way of increasing aerobic capacity.
PARKINSON’S DISEASE: the evidence is insufficient to suggest tai chi is an effective intervention for Parkinson’s Disease.
OSTEOPOROSIS: The evidence for tai chi in the prevention or treatment of osteoporosis is not convincing.
OSTEOARTHRITIS: there is some encouraging evidence suggesting that tai chi may be effective for pain control in patients with knee OA.
RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS: Collectively this evidence is not convincing enough to suggest that tai chi is an effective treatment for RA.
Finally, an overview over all systematic reviews of Tai Chi suggested that the only area where the evidence is convincing is the prevention of falls in the elderly.
I think, this indicates that we should not pin our hopes too high as to the therapeutic value of Tai Chi. In particular, for back pain, the evidence might be optimistically judged as encouraging, but it is by no means convincing; the effect size seems to be small and two studies are not enough to issue general recommendations. On the other hand, considering that there is so little to offer to back pain patients, I concede that this is an area that should be studied further. Meanwhile, one could argue that Tai Chi can be fun and is devoid of risks – so, why not give it a try?