Tai chi is a Chinese martial art in which participants perform slow, controlled movements coupled with meditation and controlled breathing techniques. Practicing tai chi regularly has several health benefits, both physical and mental. These include reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as decreased pain and improved mobility. Tai chi, like other mind-body exercises such as yoga, has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially for health reasons. The risks from performing tai chi are fairly low, with only a handful of test subjects reporting pain while performing the exercise. In addition, more than half the people in a large national survey (conducted every few years in the U.S.) reported that they felt tai chi, yoga, or qigong (a meditative martial art) helped them manage their pain, depression, or anxiety.
Tai chi for chronic pain
Chronic pain—pain that does not go away or reduce in severity for at least 12 weeks—is a severe and debilitating condition. In many cases, it is not due to a physical injury. Instead, it is more like a “malfunctioning alarm system,” where much of the pain—both generated and perceived—comes from the same areas of the brain that control emotion and motivation.
Tai chi is a single exercise that checks both the mental and physical aspects of pain control. Performing tai chi regularly has been shown to help reduce ratings of pain severity (that is, a user’s pain doesn’t feel as bad) and improve some of the psychological contributors (such as depression) to chronic pain. Just as emotional dysregulation (such as unmanaged mental or emotional illness) can cause pain, the practice of mental skills such as the meditation that is an essential part of tai chi can help control the pain. And the increase in physical activity that comes with performing tai chi regularly also plays a role.
Researchers have found similar results for people with PTSD who also have chronic pain. Both PTSD and chronic pain are complex and difficult to manage because their root causes include a number of factors. No single treatment for either condition is guaranteed to be effective. In fact, both conditions appear to be managed best using a comprehensive, holistic approach that encompasses multiple Total Force Fitness domains. Tai chi can be a “door opener” type of treatment. It won’t cure a person, but the combination of mental and physical exercise might help reduce their pain and PTSD symptoms enough to help other forms of treatment be effective.
Follow along with this tai chi video, produced by the Dayton VA Medical Center, to get started in a new tai chi routine.