By Brenda Goodman

8/18/10 A new study has found that tai chi, a mind-body practice that combines meditation with gentle, flowing poses, may significantly reduce the spectrum of physical and mental problems associated with fibromyalgia.

The study, published in the August 19, 2010 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, randomly split 66 people with fibromyalgia into two equal groups. Both groups met twice weekly for 12 weeks. The first group practiced 60 minutes of tai chi with an experienced instructor, while the second group spent 40 minutes in a health education class followed by 20 minutes of stretching.

Researchers measured how well the participants were doing by using the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire, or FIQ, which measures pain, physical functioning, fatigue, morning tiredness, stiffness, depression, anxiety, difficulty at work and overall well-being.

Based on their answers, patients were given a score from 0 to 100, with higher numbers representing worse symptoms.

Though the study was small, the results were dramatic.

After 12 weeks of tai chi, participants’ average scores on the FIQ dropped from 63 to 35, a 28-point decrease. The control group, on the other hand, only saw an improvement of about 9 points, taking their average score from 68 to 59.

And 35 percent of the tai chi participants were able to stop taking their pain medications as compared to 15 percent of the control group.
Previous research has suggested that in order for a treatment to be considered effective for fibromyalgia, it should produce at least a 14 percent improvement in the FIQ.

In this case, the average FIQ score in study participants improved by 44 percent as compared to an average 13 percent improvement in the placebo group.

Researchers aren’t sure how tai chi may be helping, but they suspect that it probably works on many fronts – movement may increase muscle strength, while meditation promotes tranquility, decreasing the stress and anxiety than can amplify pain.

Study author Chenchen Wang, MD, a research rheumatologist at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, has been studying the effects of tai chi on rheumatic diseases for nearly a decade. She says she was not surprised by the magnitude of improvement many people in the study achieved.

“Patients with chronic rheumatic conditions always have lots of improvements,” Dr. Wang says. “Patients send flowers and cards. My office is full of flowers all the time. They just feel that it really changed their lives.”

Dr. Wang says study participants were doing Yang-style tai chi, but she thinks that other kinds would work equally well.

“It seems like a well-done study,” says Leigh Callahan, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is evalauting the effects of an 8-week program of sun-style tai chi, which is offered as a class and a DVD from the Arthritis Foundation, in 330 people.

“I think it just lends more credence to the fact that physical activity is good for arthritis, and I think the broader the menu we have for people, the better,” she adds.

Though her results have not been fully analyzed, Callahan says participants in that study, which is being sponsored by The Arthritis Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have seen improvements in pain, stiffness, sleep, self-efficacy and balance.

“We’re really affirming what they found,” she says.