Will tai chi help my fibromyalgia?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I have fibromyalgia, and my doctor recommends that I start tai chi exercises. Like any exercise, it will take time. So I want to be sure it really might help me. Can it?

DEAR READER:

One of the many practices from Asia that have spread to the West in the past 40 years is tai chi. It is often described as “meditation in motion.” I think it could just as well be called MEDICATION in motion. This mind-body practice appears to help treat or prevent many health problems.

Tai chi is a low-impact, slow-motion exercise. As you practice it, you move fluidly through a series of motions. The motions are named for animal actions, such as “white crane spreads its wings,” or for martial arts moves.

As you move, you breathe deeply and naturally, focusing your attention on your bodily sensations.

A tai chi session usually starts with a warm-up to help you loosen your muscles and joints and focus on your breath and body. Then you proceed to tai chi “forms,” which are sets of movements.

A tai chi session also usually includes “qigong.” Qigong consists of gentle breathing sometimes combined with movement. The idea is to help relax the mind and mobilize the body’s energy.

Tai chi can be easily adapted for anyone, whether you are fit, confined to a wheelchair or recovering from surgery. It addresses the key components of fitness: muscle strength, flexibility, balance and, to a lesser degree, aerobic conditioning.

Combined with standard treatment, tai chi may also be helpful for several medical conditions, including fibromyalgia. In fact, a large study published in a prestigious journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, demonstrated its value in people like you who suffer from fibromyalgia.

Tai chi also has been found to increase flexibility and mobility, and to decrease pain, in a number of other medical conditions:

  • Parkinson’s disease;
  • Low back pain;
  • Severe knee osteoarthritis;
  • Ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and debilitating inflammatory form of arthritis;
  • Breast cancer, and the side effects of its treatment;
  • Stroke, to improve balance and strength.

In addition to helping treat various medical conditions, tai chi also helps protect against getting various medical conditions:

  • Osteoporosis in postmenopausal women;
  • High blood pressure;
  • Sleep disorders.

I don’t see a lot of people practicing tai chi in public places. I’ll bet that will change in the next couple of decades. I have mentioned in this column before a trip I took to Asia years ago. I took a brisk morning walk around a pond near the hotel. There were a few other walkers and joggers — but there were hundreds of people doing tai chi. The hotel staff told me that they all practiced tai chi. So did their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. We have to take seriously any practice that has persisted for centuries among millions of people.