Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia

Reward, Motivation, and Better Health, Part IV
August 10, 2010
Feel Better
October 12, 2010

Last week The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a study that found tai chi to be an effective treatment for reducing pain and symptoms associated with fibromyalgia. The research was headed by a group from Tufts Medical Center led by Dr. Chenchen Wang. The article’s study group participated in two one hour tai chi classes each week for twelve weeks and was compared to a control group. They were then evaluated 24 weeks out from the start of the study and showed significant benefit based on a test known as the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire (FIQ) which measures things like pain intensity, function, fatigue, stiffness, depression, anxiety, and overall well-being.

Fibromyalgia is now considered to be a common cause of chronic pain in our society, and it is characterized by diffuse musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, poor sleep, and a depressed mood. Fibromyalgia remains poorly understood, but research suggests that its sufferers may have an alteration in pain sensitivity in the central nervous system. The prevalence of fibromyalgia as a common chronic disease seems to be more closely associated with our modern era, though that could be due to past ignorance.

Tai Chi originated in China in the thirteenth century as a martial art form, and it is now a practice that combines meditation with slow, graceful movements, breathing and relaxation. I think it is interesting how a modern, vexing medical problem like fibromyalgia gets lined up here with an ancient practice like tai chi, but I’m certainly not surprised by the positive results. In fact, I have been recommending it to patients for a number of years.
The NEJM also ran a special editorial on this tai chi study called: “Prescribing Tai Chi for Fibromyalgia-Are We There Yet?” Are we there yet? What else has to happen for us to take advantage of something that has been around for 700 years? The authors of the editorial even went on to opine that before doctors in practice start recommending tai chi to their patients, that “we need replications of this study on a larger scale over a longer period of time…” In other words, millions of people have practiced tai chi safely over a period of seven centuries, but hold off making recommendations to your patients about it until more studies are published. Now that is what I call health care reform!

Hold on, the editorial gets better. The authors go on to say that: “It may be that further evidence in support of tai chi for fibromyalgia, even if consistently positive, will never be as fully convincing as the results of double-blind pharmaceutical trials.” I suggest that these authors sit in the waiting rooms of pain clinics across the nation to see how useful these supposedly well-respected pharmaceutical trials have been in improving the quality of life of our patients. They sure look great in the television commercials, though, don’t they?