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How effective is tai chi in treating fibromyalgia?

A recent study published in the British Journal of Medicine compared the effectiveness of aerobic exercise versus tai chi for fibromyalgia treatment.

Fibromyalgia is a complex chronic condition in which a person experiences a range of physical and mental symptoms including widespread muscle and joint pains, fatigue, an inability to concentrate, depression and anxiety. The cause of the condition is not known, but it is thought to result from an increased sensitivity to pain. Currently, there is no cure and therapy aims at controlling symptoms by a combination of drug treatment, behavioral therapy, and exercise programs.

Aerobic exercise is a standard part of recommended treatments for fibromyalgia. However, some patients have difficulty adhering to these exercise programs. Some studies have suggested that tai chi, a form of traditional Chinese mind-body exercises, may be beneficial in the treatment of fibromyalgia. Tai chi is an ancient discipline which combines physical and mental exercises to promote health and well-being. Researchers in the US compared the effects of aerobic exercise and tai chi for fibromyalgia treatment. They recently reported their findings in the British Journal of Medicine.

The investigators recruited 226 patients with fibromyalgia to the study. They randomly assigned the patients to one of five treatment groups including one aerobic exercise group and four tai chi groups. The aerobic exercise group attended two supervised exercise classes every week for 24 weeks. The four tai chi groups attended supervised classes of different intensity and duration: once weekly for 12 weeks, twice weekly for 12 weeks, once weekly for 24 weeks, or twice weekly for 24 weeks. The patients completed a standardized “Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire” at the start of the study and after 24 weeks, to examine the effects of the exercise programs on their fibromyalgia symptoms.

Tai chi for fibromyalgia resulted in similar or greater improvements than aerobic exercise

After 24 weeks, all of the participants’ fibromyalgia symptoms had improved. However, the combined tai chi groups had improved significantly more than the aerobic exercise group. Tai chi treatment at the same intensity and duration as the aerobic exercise group (twice weekly for 24 weeks) showed greater benefit. The groups who received tai chi treatment for 24 weeks had a greater benefit than those who received it for 12 weeks. However, there was no significant difference between groups receiving once weekly or twice weekly tai chi treatment. Additionally, the participants in the tai chi groups attended more regularly than those in the aerobic exercise program.

Tai chi may offer a useful alternative approach in fibromyalgia treatment

The researchers concluded that tai chi exercise has a similar or greater effect than aerobic exercise on many symptoms of fibromyalgia. The participants in the tai chi groups attended exercise classes more regularly, suggesting that it may be more acceptable exercise for fibromyalgia patients. The researchers suggest that tai chi for fibromyalgia may offer a useful alternative treatment.

Written by Julie McShane, Medical Writer

Reference: Wang C, Schmid CH, Fielding RA, et al. Effect of tai chi versus aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia: comparative effectiveness randomized controlled trial. BMJ 2018; 360:k851. Doi: 10.1136/bmj.k851.

Julie Mcshane MA MB BS
Julie Mcshane MA MB BS
Julie studied medicine at the Universities of Cambridge and London, UK. Whilst in medical practice, she developed an interest in medical writing and moved to a career in medical communications. She worked with companies in London and Hong Kong on a wide variety of medical education projects. Originally from Ireland, Julie is now based in Dublin, where she is a freelance medical writer. She enjoys contributing to the Medical News Bulletin to help provide a source of accurate and clear information about the latest developments in medical research.


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