Older people with knee pain may get help from tai chi

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Knee pain from osteoarthritis is a common and often chronic ailment for older people. But a new study finds that practicing tai chi exercises may not only reduce osteoarthritis pain, but improve function as well.

Tai chi is a Chinese martial art with a mind-body connection that emphasizes flexibility, balance and strength. Tai chi has been used in a number of research studies because of its health benefits. Many believe that practicing the slow, controlled movements reduces stress while enhancing muscle coordination and flexibility and increasing energy.


Forty people with knee osteoarthritis, average age 65, were recruited for the study by researchers from the Tufts University School of Medicine. Half were randomly placed in hour-long twice-weekly tai chi classes for three months. The classes included self-massage, tai chi movements, breathing techniques and relaxation. Participants were also asked to practice tai chi for at least 20 minutes a day at home while maintaining their usual physical routine.

The other 20 participants acted as the control group, attending twice-weekly hour-long sessions on osteoarthritis that included information on diet and nutrition, plus ways to treat the condition and how to handle stress. They also took part in full-body stretching exercises and were encouraged to stretch for 20 minutes a day at home and follow their regular physical regimen.

After the three months, those in the tai chi group saw a substantial drop in knee pain compared with the control group. The tai chi group also saw more improvements in function, depression and health status.

In the study, the authors wrote that though the exact mechanisms are not know for how tai chi may improve knee osteoarthritis, ‘synergy between its physical and mental components likely plays a major role. First, tai chi may enhance cardiovascular benefits, muscular strength, balance, coordination, and physical function. All of these are thought to be able to reduce joint pain.’

The study appears in the November issue of the journal Arthritis Care & Research.

-Jeannine Stein