Tai Chi for Arthritis


Posted by Master Aaron Khor on 27 Jan 2020

One of the most crippling diseases of the day is arthritis (that is inflammation of the joints or connective tissues).  This disease creates more health issues in western society than any other disease apart from heart and mental problems.  It is estimated that in the western world 90% of people over the age of 60 suffer significant problems with joints and loss of suppleness and flexibility.

Arthritis is a general term to describe over 150 types of a disease that affects the joints and connective tissues of the body, the most common forms being osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout. One of the main symptoms is joint stiffness (others being inflammation, skin rashes, loss of vision, damage to organs, ligaments and other connective tissue).  The disease can result in loss of mobility, chronic pain, redness, stiffness in joints particularly in the morning, fatigue, swelling of joints (hands, feet, knees), muscle weakness combined with stiff joints, inability to sleep well at night due to pain and depression. The effects of arthritis on one’s lifestyle can be extremely handicapping and can result in sufferers being dependent on others for simple tasks such as dressing or brushing hair.

Too many people see arthritis as a “wear and tear” condition of the joints and conclude that the last thing that is needed is exercise.  This, however, is not the case and lack of appropriate exercise can not only contribute to the onset of arthritis but can be a major contributor to the problems associated with arthritis.

To understand this, we must understand a little about joints.  The cells of the lining of the joint do not have direct contact with the blood circulation system and receive their supply of oxygen and nutrients through the synovial fluid within the joint.  If this synovial fluid is not properly circulated (through movement of the joint) then the nutrition of these cells becomes inadequate and they become more vulnerable to disease and injury.  Joints thus benefit from a gentle, slow, full rotation of the joint done in a relaxed state of mind.  Relaxation is necessary because when we are stressed the body takes away blood from other areas of the body and allocates it to the muscles.  If we are relaxed when we exercise the joints supply of nutrients and oxygen is at the highest point while the synovial fluid is being circulated.  We also know that rheumatoid arthritis is related to the action of the immune system and that stress has negative effects on that system.

The importance of being relaxed also tells us that exercising during an acute bout of arthritis is not a good idea.  The pain involved would leave us far from relaxed better to leave the exercises to periods when inflammation is at its lowest. 

Correct posture and movement technique are also important to preventing and alleviating arthritis.    Whenever the joints are “locked” or at full extension they are particularly vulnerable to damage.  This is particularly the case with the knees and learning to step so that the body weight is absorbed through the muscles rather than the joints is most important.

Osteoarthritis (literally bone arthritis) is a condition where the cartilage that protects the ends of the bones wears away the rubbing together of the now rough surface of the bone causes pain and prevents proper functioning of the joints. This situation occurs most often in the weight bearing joints particularly the hips and knees. Over a period of time, the cartilage thins and may even break down to leave the bones unprotected. As a result, the joint loses its smooth function and the bone loses its shape which thickens at the end to produce bony spurts called osteophytes. The term degenerative and secondary arthritis are sometimes used as osteoarthritic changes are more likely to occur when there has been a previous injury, unrecognised defect in the joint sutrcture or poorly healed injuries. This condition often occurs in the hands and affects the end of the finger joints producing bony growths or nodules known as Heberden’s Nodes. The spine is another common area affecting the neck and lower bacck region. Wear and tear of the discs between spinal bones (Vetebrae) result in degeneration also known as Spondylosis or Spondylitis. Often the other joints of the body may function well. Many osteoarthritis sufferers are in the 50+ age group.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a malfunction of the immune system, which attacks the tissue of the joints. This auto-immune disroder reaction causes the inflammation of the joints, particularly of the synovial membrane which lines them. Swelling of joints occur due to synovial fluid being overly-produced and combined with inflammation results in difficulty of movement. Often many joints are involved, and this condition can occur at a very early age. In its mild form, it may cause no more than minor discomfort and does not lead to serious joint deformity. Although there is not cure, there are medications and treatments that are effective in treating this condition such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. The causes are unknown but are broken down to a virus or bacterium infecting the body. Chinese Medicine identifies this disease as dampness and wind evil Qi combined which is constantly moving around causing inflammation and pain.  

With both above types of arthritis much of the damage results from the reluctance to move (due to the pain) and consequent immobility of the joint or joints.  Other common forms of Arthritis include:  Infectious Arthritis results where there is bacterial infection of the joint or connective tissue either from physical injury or blood pathogens.  Gout where high levels of uric acid cause deposits in joints usually in toes.  Other conditions such as Lyme’s disease, Lupus and many others may cause damage to the joints which is then termed arthritis.

Finally, breathing is one of the most effective ways of initiating the “relaxation response”.   When the body is in the relaxation response the resources of the body are directed to the growth and maintenance of the body including the immune system.  This is the state the body should be in when there is no external threat. Correct breathing is particularly important when you have conditions such as arthritis.

Exercise can help to prevent and manage arthritis and you should always take your medical advisors’ recommendations as to the specific needs of your case. Proper exercise that considers the way that the body functions and interacts can however reduce your chances of getting arthritis and improve your quality of life if you already have that condition. 

Tai Chi can provide many benefits to those who are arthritic or who have pre-arthritic conditions or who have a high risk of developing arthritis.

  • Tai Chi reduces stress and increases the relaxation response.  Stress cuts blood circulation to joints and can increase the risk of an auto-immune response.
  • The slow rotational movement of Tai Chi creates suppleness without the risk of joint injury and promotes the circulation of the synovial fluid within joint capsules that is essential for the health of the joint lining.
  • Tai Chi improves blood circulation, increasing oxygen and nutrients, supplied to the joints and reducing waste products and toxins.
  • Tai Chi strengthens connective tissue and ligaments and improves muscle tone all of which help protect the joints from excessive strain.
  • Tai Chi teaches proper movement and postural technique.  This reduces strain on joints and lessons damage from micro impact associated with incorrect stepping.  It also reduces the risk of falls that may cause joint damage.
  • Tai Chi can help combat obesity.  Excessive weight places additional strain on joints.