Why Tai Chi Helps Relieve Knee Pain


Specialists in the field of osteoarthritis (OA), such as the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American College of Rheumatology (ACR), recommend physical therapy as one of the best ways to alleviate the pain of knee OA, and in recent years have sought to expand the options available to OA patients. A new study indicates an ancient method of exercise can ease OA knee pain. It’s the Chinese martial art known as tai chi.

The study was conducted by a team headed by Chenchen Wang, M.D., of the Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Previous research had suggested that tai chi could be effective in knee OA, but this new study is the first to directly compare tai chi to traditional physical therapy. Wang’s team recruited 204 patients with knee OA—70% were women, the mean age was 60 and the average number of years with OA was eight. The patients were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group had 12 weeks of training in classical tai chi twice a week. The second group received traditional physical therapy twice a week for six weeks and then, for another six weeks, received “rigorously monitored” in-home physical therapy.

The patients were rated according to a much-used pain scale called WOMAC (The Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Arthritis Index) that rates pain from 0 to 500. After the 12-week period, the patients using tai chi reported a 167-point drop in pain. The patients using traditional physical therapy had a drop of 143 points. Other measurements also were taken. Both groups, for example, were able to reduce the amount of pain medication they were taking, but there was no difference between the groups. The tai chi group showed better improvement regarding depression and also reported a “significantly greater” improvement in a standard measurement of health called the SF-36 Physical Component score.

The researchers also noted that the outcomes in the tai chi group did not differ by instructor. This finding, they wrote, suggested that “standardized tai chi can be used as a viable therapeutic alternative to treat knee OA.”

A version of this article was published in the April/May issue of Pain-Free Living. Subscribe.

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