Tai Chi for Knee Arthritis


Denise Mann, MS

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Tai Chi

Tai chi, an ancient Chinese form of martial arts, can help relieve pain and improve function for the millions of people who live with knee osteoarthritis (OA).

In fact, the American College of Rheumatology includes tai chi on its list of non-drug therapies for knee OA.

Tai chi is marked by slow, graceful movements and deep breathing. This mind-body form of exercise is sometimes called “moving meditation.” The theory is that the movements stimulate the flow of Qi or energy through the body and help to improve balance, flexibility, and muscle strength. Tai chi also helps lower stress levels by promoting an inner calm.

Tai Chi and OA

In addition to Tai chi’s benefits on overall health, many studies have shown that tai chi can specifically improve the symptoms of knee OA, the wear-and-tear form of the disease. A study out of Boston’s Tufts Medical Center study found adults with knee OA reported up to three times greater improvement in pain and joint function after biweekly hour-long tai chi sessions, when compared with their counterparts who attended stretching and wellness classes. 

Those individuals who practiced tai chi were also less depressed and had a better health-related quality of life (a measure that looks at how a disease or condition like knee OA affects quality of life). A review of six studies on tai chi and knee OA backs this up. All the studies included in this review showed tai chi can relieve pain and improve physical function.

Tai chi may even give physical therapy a run for its money among people with knee OA–at least that’s what a newly initiated study is seeking to find out. The trial is slated to compare cost and effectiveness of tai chi versus physical therapy in knee OA, and the results should be telling. Stay tuned.

Tai Chi and OA: Getting Started

Tai chi can and should be part of a comprehensive exercise program designed to improve your total health. Getting started with tai chi is easy and doesn’t involve spending any money on equipment or clothing.

Here’s how:

Check in with your doctor.

Although tai chi is gentle and easy on the joints, it’s always a good idea to get clearance from your doctor before starting. He or she may have some recommendations about local tai chi classes.

Learn the ropes.

Tai chi can be done alone or in groups. Consider purchasing a DVD or even following along with a how-to YouTube video on tai chi. The Arthritis Foundation also offers free video tutorials on Tai chi. Local classes are also available–some of which are given through your localArthritis Foundation.

Dress comfortably.

Tai chi can be done barefoot or in comfy shoes and loose-fitting clothing. If you are comfortable in it, you can do tai chi in it.

Reap the benefits.

Most of the studies that looked at the effects of tai chi on knee OA pain span about 12 weeks, with instruction given once or twice a week and home practice encouraged. This is the time frame where maximum benefits were realized. As with other forms of exercise, sticking with tai chi is the key to success.

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The Knee Pain Diaries

Watch personal stories of how people cope with the pain of knee arthritis.
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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Mar 21, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Hochberg MC, et al. American College of Rheumatology. 2012 recommendations for the use of nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic therapies in osteoarthritis of the hand, hip, and knee. Arthritis Care & Research. 2012 Apr;64(4):465-74.
  2. Tai chi exercises. Arthritis Foundation. (http://www.arthritistoday.org/what-you-can-do/staying-active/exercise-videos/tai-chi-exercises/)
  3. Wang C, et al. Assessing the comparative effectiveness of Tai Chi versus physical therapy for knee osteoarthritis: design and rationale for a randomized trial. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2014 Sep 8;14:333. (http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6882/14/333)
  4. Wang C, et al. Tai chi is effective in treating knee osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial. Arthritis & Rheumatism. 2009;61(11):1545–53. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19877092)
  5. Tai Chi. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22563589)
  6. Ye J, et al. Effects of tai chi for patients with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2014 Jul;26(7):1133-7. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25140112)

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