Tai chi, an ancient Chinese martial art, may alleviate some
of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and help sufferers
better cope with daily life.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a crippling and
painful disorder that causes stiffness and joint swelling.
Because joint movements are often painful, many sufferers
eventually become seriously debilitated. Although current
treatments can reduce pain and inflammation, and slow the
chronic disease's progression, these powerful medications
can have unpleasant side effects and weaken the immune system.
Tai chi may help. UCLA researchers are investigating whether
the ancient Chinese martial art can relieve symptoms and
improve mobility, helping patients lead a relatively normal
"Tai chi combines both relaxation and mild physical exercise,
which gets patients moving but in a gentle way," says Perry
Nicassio, a psychologist at UCLA who is conducting the research.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that affects
about 2.1 million Americans; the majority of sufferers are
women. The illness usually causes aching, throbbing or stiffness
of the joints and muscles, fatigue, low-grade fever, and
a general sense of not feeling well.
Because they are in chronic pain, sufferers often have trouble
sleeping, making them tired, depressed and irritable. They
also tend to be quite sedentary, leading to a loss of strength,
mobility, balance and endurance, all of which are vital
for life's daily activities. Eventually, even opening a
jar or walking can be difficult.
"Their symptoms trigger a self-perpetuating cycle that leads
to a downward spiral in their functioning," says Jennifer
Pike, a psychologist at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute
who is involved in the tai chi studies.
Although medications such as Enbrel and Remicade can dampen
the overactive immune response that sparks the condition,
they don't deal with the other problems such as depression,
stress and progressive loss of muscle strength. This has
prompted doctors to explore alternative methods to ease
Recent research indicates that tai chi can preserve range
of motion in people with rheumatoid arthritis, which could
in turn reduce disability.
And a 2003 UCLA study demonstrated that a modified form
of tai chi, known as tai chi chih, boosts the immune system's
response to a common virus and prevents outbreaks of shingles,
a skin condition that strikes the elderly.
Two ongoing UCLA studies are evaluating whether tai chi
chih can increase mobility in rheumatoid arthritis sufferers,
and if it is better than current behavioral techniques in
helping sufferers deal with their condition. Tai chi chih
is a standardized series of 20 movements adapted from tai
chi that combines meditation, relaxation and components
of aerobic exercise, and can improve muscle tone, balance
"This form of tai chi works best for older adults and people
in chronic pain because it's less jarring on the joints,"
says Roberta Taggart, a Redondo Beach tai chi chih instructor
who is working with the UCLA team.
One study will involve 210 volunteers; they will attend
classes for 12 weeks in tai chi chih, health education or
cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches coping skills
to manage RA symptoms. Another study, in which 60 subjects
will attend classes for 16 weeks, will compare whether tai
chi chih or relaxation training is better at helping patients
cope and examine how well each method alleviates the severity
of the disease.
Participants' progress will be assessed by their feedback
and objective measures of their functioning, such as a doctor's
evaluation of joint swelling and blood tests to measure
the activity of inflammatory cells, known as cytokines,
which are believed to trigger the disease.
Researchers say the exercises could not only improve physical
strength and flexibility but also boost mood and relieve
"Our goal is to teach patients how to manage their illness
in ways that complement their medical treatment so they're
not completely dependant on drugs," says Nicassio. "Hopefully,
tai chi chih will make them feel less pessimistic about
their circumstances and more in control."
Tai chi also appears to reduce the risk of falls in the
In a study in the June issue of the Journal of Advanced
Nursing, South Korean researchers studied adults whose average
age was 78 and who were prone to falls. Twenty-nine participants
took a 12-week tai chi course three times a week, while
30 participants did not.
At the end of the study, the exercise group had stronger
knee and ankle muscles, improved mobility and flexibility
and better balance.
During the test period, 31% of the exercise group had a
fall, compared with 50% of the control group.