Tai Chi Beats Aerobics for Fibromyalgia Pain

If you suffer from fibromyalgia, new research suggests tai chi might do more than aerobic exercise to ease your chronic pain.

“Tai chi mind-body treatment results in similar or greater improvement in symptoms than aerobic exercise, the current most commonly prescribed nondrug treatment, for a variety of outcomes for patients with fibromyalgia,” the study authors wrote.

Fibromyalgia affects roughly 2 to 4 percent of adults worldwide. People with the disorder may become very tired and develop muscle stiffness. They may also have trouble sleeping and suffer from depression.

Treatment for fibromyalgia typically includes aerobic exercise, but this can be challenging for many patients when their symptoms flare up, the researchers explained. Previous studies have suggested that tai chi holds promise as a fibromyalgia therapy.

To investigate the possible benefits of tai chi, researchers led by Dr. Chenchen Wang, from Tufts University’s Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine in Boston, compared the effects of this meditative art with aerobic exercise.

The study included 226 adults who had fibromyalgia for an average of nine years. The patients were an average age of 52. The vast majority were women and 61 percent were white. None of the participants had engaged in tai chi or any other type of alternative therapy for the past six months.

When the study began, the researchers questioned the patients about their physical and mental symptoms, including the intensity of their pain, ability to move, fatigue, depression, anxiety and overall well-being.

Next, the patients were randomly assigned to either aerobic exercise therapy or tai chi. The exercise group completed two supervised aerobic exercise sessions each week for a total of 24 weeks. Those who engaged in tai chi followed one of four treatment plans: one or two sessions per week for a total of either 12 or 24 weeks.

The researchers tracked the participants’ symptoms at regular intervals. During this time, the patients continued taking their medication and made regular visits to their doctor.

All patients experienced some relief of their symptoms, but the improvements were much greater among those in the tai chi groups at the end of 24 weeks, the study found.

The findings were published on March 21 in the BMJ.

None of the patients who engaged in tai chi reported any negative side effects or complications.

“This mind-body approach may be considered a therapeutic option in the multidisciplinary management of fibromyalgia,” Wang’s team said in a journal news release.

In a commentary that accompanied the study, Amy Price, a trauma survivor with chronic pain, said tai chi has helped improve her balance, reduce anxiety and manage pain.

While it doesn’t work for everyone, “it is low risk and minimally invasive, unlike surgery, and it will not harm your organs, like long-term drug use,” Price said.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information on fibromyalgia.