Tai chi
(Cottage Health / iStock photo)

Experts agree that, in most cases, gently exercising and stretching is the best way to reduce arthritis pain and maintain strength.

The art of Tai Chi has been used to enhance health for hundreds of years in the East. Now it’s gaining popularity as a way to fight off the crippling pain of arthritis, and to increase flexibility and strength without straining joints.

Several small studies show that Tai Chi helps people do the motions necessary to carry out daily activities.

In one study, 33 people with arthritis in one or more affected joints in the hips or legs practiced Tai Chi two hours a week for three months. At the end of that period, they reported “improved walk speed, bending ability, arm function, self-care activities and household tasks,” according to the study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

A systematic review of studies on Tai Chi and osteoarthritis found that “there is some encouraging evidence suggesting that Tai Chi may be effective for pain control in patients with knee osteoarthritis.”

However, the study authors said more controlled studies were needed to see whether there was convincing evidence of pain reduction or improvement of physical functioning.

And according to the Cochrane Collaboration, which reviews treatments for evidence of safety and effectiveness, there is also “silver level evidence that Tai Chi improves the range of motion of the ankle, hip and knee in people with rheumatoid arthritis. It did not improve people’s ability to do chores, joint tenderness, grip strength or their number of swollen joints nor did it increase their symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. But, people felt that they improved when doing Tai Chi and enjoyed it.”

Although there have been no large, long-term studies on how much the ancient discipline helps those with aching joints, the testimony of arthritis sufferers who have done Tai Chi was enough to convince the Arthritis Foundation to begin offering it across the country.

The program consists of 12 basic movements chosen from the Sun style of Tai Chi and was designed especially for people with arthritis.

A study of the Tai Chi exercises used in the foundation’s classes revealed that 22 participants with arthritis experienced “signicantly less pain and stiffness in the joints” than 22 nonpracticing arthritis sufferers.

For 12 weeks, the Tai Chi group spent 20 minutes a day, four times a week, executing the movements, according to the study, which was released at an annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.