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Can tai chi work as physical therapy for chronic pain relief?


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Photo: Thinkstock/MarkgrafAve

Unfortunately there’s not a handy list of set-in-stone steps that you can take to alleviate symptoms of fibromyalgia—AKA chronic pain. Many details about the “invisible disorder” remain a mystery: There are no visible signs of the condition and no medical test that can confirm it, making it very difficult to diagnose, let alone manage the painful symptoms. But one thing does seem to aid the widespread muscle pain in its tracks: tai chi.

Researchers found that practicing tai chi can improve fibromyalgia symptoms, with even greater improvements available the longer participants kept up the exercises.

According to a new study published in The BMJ, the ancient Chinese mind-body practice—AKA “meditation in motion,” which consists of graceful, slow-moving exercises that have many scientifically proven mental and physical benefits—could help reduce fibromyalgia symptoms. After randomly assigning 226 participants with fibromyalgia (average age 52, and 92 percent were women) to do either aerobic exercises (75 people) or tai chi (151 people) for a year, researchers found that those who practiced tai chi had the most improvement in their symptoms after 24 weeks and even greater improvements the longer they kept it up. Additionally, lead study author Chenchen Wang, MD, told Time that tai chi might also be useful for addressing chronic fatigue since the movements increase blood flow throughout the body and the brain. And while more research needs to be done to draw a clear association between tai chi and reduced symptoms of fibromyalgia, the evidence points to it at least not creating further pain—so why not try it?

“Our results suggest that physicians should think about what type of exercise is best for their patients with fibromyalgia,” Dr. Wang told Time. “We found that tai chi was more enjoyable [for patients], there was a social connection, and they could practice it at home by themselves with their family and friends.”

Perhaps this social, enjoyable aspect points to why the tai chi classes in the study saw a better attendance rate than the aerobic ones: Time reported that tai chi participants went to 62 percent of classes versus 40 percent for aerobic workouts. So if you’re dealing with chronic pain, this just might be the low-key alternative treatment you’ve been waiting for.

Here’s how one chef used food to heal his chronic pain. Or, see what Lady Gaga has to say about her struggle with chronic pain.

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