Plain language summary
Tai chi for rheumatoid arthritis
Does Tai Chi help people with rheumatoid arthritis?
To answer this question, scientists analysed 4 studies. The studies tested 202 people who had rheumatoid arthritis. Some people attended classes, were taught or practiced Tai Chi for 8 to 10 weeks. The other people did not receive classes with Tai Chi. The studies were not high quality but this Cochrane Review provides the best evidence about Tai Chi that we have today.
What is Tai Chi and how could it help people with rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease in which the body's immune system attacks its own healthy tissues. The attack happens mostly in the joints of the feet and hands and causes redness, pain, swelling and heat around the joint. Tai Chi, also called 'Tai Chi Chuan' combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements. In older people, Tai Chi has been shown to decrease stress, increase muscle strength in the lower body, and improve balance, posture and the ability to move. It is not known whether Tai Chi could provide the same benefits for people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Does Tai Chi work?
Two studies tested and showed that people's ability to do daily chores, the tenderness in their joints, the number of swollen joints they had and the strength of their grip was about the same whether they did Tai Chi or not.
One study tested and showed that the range of motion of the ankle, hip and knee improved more when doing Tai Chi than not doing Tai Chi. After 10 weeks of Tai Chi and then 4 months later, people doing Tai Chi enjoyed the programme and felt that they had improved more than people who did not do Tai Chi.
The studies, however, did not test for improvements in pain or quality of life.
Were there any side effects?
In two of the studies, about one third of the people doing Tai Chi complained of a sore knee, shoulder or lower back during the first 3 weeks but the pain did decrease and they continued to do Tai Chi (except in one person). More people left the studies when they did not do Tai Chi.
What is the bottom line?
There is "silver" level evidence that Tai Chi improves the range of motion of the ankle, hip and knee in people with rheumatoid arthritis. It did not improve people's ability to do chores, joint tenderness, grip strength or their number of swollen joints nor did it increase their symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. But, people felt that they improved when doing Tai Chi and enjoyed it.
It is still not known if it improves pain in rheumatoid arthritis or that person's quality of life. It is also not clear how much, how intense and for how long Tai Chi should be done to see benefits.
Based on Han A, Robinson V, Judd M, Taixiang W, Wells G, Tugwell P. Tai Chi for Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis. In The Cochrane Library, Issue 3, 2004 (in press).