Tai chi offers relief from fibromyalgia

You’ve no doubt seen groups of people in the park slowly going through a series of careful movements and stretches. That’s tai chi, the ancient Chinese martial art with roots in traditional medicine. It’s typically recommended as a low-impact form of exercise for elderly people, with established benefits for flexibility, muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness. But could it also be of benefit to those with fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition, which includes muscular or bone pain, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping. People with fibromyalgia who do moderate aerobic exercise see improvements in pain and function but they can find it difficult to keep up a fitness regime because of their symptoms. Could low intensity, low-impact tai chi be a better fit?

Over the course of a year, more than 200 people with fibromyalgia undertook either an aerobic exercise program or a tai chi program. The aerobic program was the same as one recommended to people with fibromyalgia and lasted for one hour, twice a week for 24 weeks. The tai chi program was once or twice a week, for up to 24 weeks. Each person involved in the study had something called a “FIQR” score (0-100) which measured the severity of their pain, fatigue, depression, job difficulty, overall wellbeing and other factors. The average age of a participant in the study was 52.

The researchers found that whether people did aerobic exercise or tai chi, their FIQR score improved - that is, they had a reduction in symptoms. But they also found that those who did tai chi twice a week improved significantly more than those who did aerobic exercise twice a week. They also found people were more likely to attend tai chi classes compared with aerobics classes.

Implications

This research demonstrates that tai chi is as effective, if not more effective, than the standard exercise programme recommended for fibromyalgia and the longer you do it the more you improve. This makes it a useful additional tool in the hands of a medical practitioner aiming to treat fibromyalgia - especially when drug interventions aren’t always effective.

References

Wang et al. (2018). Effect of tai chi versus aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia: comparative effectiveness randomized controlled trial. BMJ doi: 10.1136/bmj.k851.