Mechanism of Pain Relief through Tai Chi and Qigong

Posted in Chronic Pain

NHS Networks - Rhoads CJ, Associate Professor, Department of Business Administration, Kutztown University, USA

The purpose of this paper is to outline the academic and medical evidence for Tai Chi and Qigong impact on pain, and describe the hypothesized mechanism that enables Tai chi and Qigong to work so well at relieving pain - often better than opioid pain medication, and with fewer side effects. This paper also describes a paradigm for research which will increase the likelihood that researchers doing projects in this field can synergize their efforts and start building a foundational body of knowledge rather than continue to do independent and disconnected studies on the phenomenon that enables Tai Chi and Qigong to work.

Tai Chi vs. Qigong

Decades ago there were not very many health studies on Tai chi and Qigong1. Those that did exist were not highly controlled or validated. But slowly this has begun to change. In the last six years there have been hundreds of studies that explored the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong [1].

To achieve the goal of demonstrating clear evidence of the impact on the health and well being of human beings from Tai Chi and/or Qigong, first we must define what we mean by those terms. Qigong is an “integrative health exercise”, and is generally comprised of a series of repetitive movements practiced in combination with proper body alignment, coordinated deep breathing and focused attention (i.e. “intention”). Staying relaxed and moving in ways that are aligned while being able to enhance strength and flexibility are very much central to the practice. The “focused attention”, or “intention” is generally using either external imagery (i.e. Raising the Sun, Gazing at the Moon, Bring Heaven to Earth, etc.) or internal imagery (i.e. Imagine the light flowing down through your body, Pull in to the dantien (lower abdomen), etc. [2].1

Tai Chi is often considered a specific type of Qigong [3]. Tai Chi is a practice that involves memorizing specific postures in sequence, known as a form, which was originally developed as a practice for self defense moves. In order to achieve advantage over their opponents, Tai Chi practitioners must remain balanced and in alignment at all times, breathing optimally, and remaining calm and clear headed. The Tai Chi practitioners must be able to “sense” or “listen” to the intention of the opponent. They must then be able to move with intention, while remaining completely relaxed, in such a way that whatever their opponent tries to do is neutralized. Movements require both strength and flexibility, and imagery is focused on the self defense of what the opponent is doing. Generally the movements of the form are practiced slowly, though they are done “at speed” in a martial or combat situation.
Current Research

Since 2004 there have been several meta analyses of studies of the health benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong [1,4-8] did an exhaustive literature search in order to compare mantra meditation, mindfulness meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong. The initial 11,030 studies were reduced to the 2285 studies that followed standard scientific guidelines. After applying even more meticulous scientific rigor criteria, the authors further reduced the number to 813 studies described in 803 articles. The articles that were included were primary research utilizing a control group and measureable, clearly defined health-related outcomes with a sample size greater than 10 subjects. Of these articles the authors did a “deep dive” to ascertain the characteristics and benefits of each of the meditative health practices. For example, one finding focused on the impact of the different alternative health treatments on blood pressure. Tai Chi was a highly effective at lowering systolic blood pressure (though the evidence pointed to Yoga being slightly more effective for reducing diastolic blood pressure). The resulting tables (Tables 1 and 2) shows the probability of each treatment being the best intervention.

The findings of the meta-analysis were extremely enlightening, but did not include pain relief specifically. Research that investigates the effectiveness of Tai Chi or Qigong on general pain is scarce.
Recommendations by Medical Centers

Unfortunately, until recently, few doctors learned about integrative health practices in medical school. The effects were thought to be limited to the placebo effect [9] and were, for the most part, not considered to be part of established standard of care practices.
The most influential medical schools have revised their thinking on that point, however, in face of the growing evidence to the contrary. Despite the lack of double-blind studies that provide strong scientific evidence, Qigong, Tai Chi and Yoga are all noted by many highly respected medical centers as effective pain relievers2. The metabolic changes influenced by these practices are also known to prevent or slow down the onset of viruses, flus, and cancers as well as metabolic dysfunctions, autoimmune disorders and blood diseases [10,11].

Mayo Clinic doctors recommend Tai Chi [12]. As stated on their website:
Preliminary evidence suggests that tai chi may offer numerous benefits beyond stress reduction, including:

• Reducing anxiety and depression
• Improving balance, flexibility and muscle strength
• Reducing falls in older adults
• Improving sleep quality
• Lowering blood pressure
• Improving cardiovascular fitness in older adult
• Relieving chronic pain
• Increasing energy, endurance and agility
• Improving overall feelings of well-being

Harvard Medical School doctors also recommend Tai chi [13]. Peter M. Wayne, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Tai Chi and Mind-Body Research Program at Harvard Medical School’s Osher Research Center has stated:
A growing body of carefully conducted research is building a compelling case for tai chi as an adjunct3 to standard medical treatment for the prevention and rehabilitation of many conditions commonly associated with age.”

Harvard Women’s Health Watch [14], states
This gentle form of exercise can prevent or ease many ills of aging and could be the perfect activity for the rest of your life. Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion,” but it might well be called “medication in motion.”

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