Some 5 million Americans, mostly women, have fibromyalgia, a condition that causes pain in the muscles, ligaments, and tendons. It is also a source of sleep problems, severe fatigue, physical debilitation, and sometimes depression. As with any chronic pain, fibromyalgia is managed largely with painkillers, antidepressants, and muscle relaxants, often with little success. New research, however, offers a glimmer of hope: The ancient Chinese practice of tai chi may be an effective antidote, according to a study published in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
The study was small but well conducted: 33 volunteers with fibromyalgia were assigned to take twice-weekly tai chi classes and 33 others were assigned to twice-weekly stretching classes and educational seminars about their condition. At the end of 12 weeks, the tai chi group reported greater relief from muscle pain, better sleep, and a higher quality of life with less depression. They also performed better on tests of physical abilities. What's more, nearly one person in three in the tai chi group was able to stop taking medications compared to fewer than one in six in the control group.
How tai chi works to relieve fibromyalgia is unclear. It involves physical exercise, which has been shown to improve the condition. Many sufferers have a hard time hitting the gym due to the pain, but Tai chi includes gentler physical movements as well as a type of meditation that may improve psychological well-being, increase confidence, and help sufferers overcome their fear of pain. "Controlled breathing and movements promote a restful state and mental tranquility, which may raise pain thresholds and help break the 'pain cycle,' " write the Tufts Medical Center study authors, who conclude that "tai chi is potentially a useful therapy for patients with fibromyalgia."
How to get started? Taking a class from a tai chi master is probably the best way to learn the techniques and, like yoga, tai chi classes are now offered all over the country. You can also try a DVD—Amazon.com sells dozens—though you may not know if you're practicing the right style. Participants in the latest study learned the classic Yang style of tai chi, which included a warmup, self-massage, and a review of movements, breathing techniques, and relaxation. They also used an instructional DVD for 20 minutes a day between classes to practice their techniques. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, endorses tai chi as a "relatively safe practice," but does note several precautions:
- If you overdo practice, you may have sore muscles or sprains.
- It's not a good idea to practice tai chi right after a meal, or when you're extremely fatigued or sick with an infection.
- If you're pregnant, have a hernia, joint problems, back pain, fractures, or severe osteoporosis, check with your doctor to see whether you need to modify or avoid certain tai chi postures. And, yes, do tell your tai chi master if you have fibromyalgia.