Tai chi (ty-CHEE) may help relieve the symptoms of fibromyalgia, perhaps more effectively than most medications.
Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood disorder that causes widespread pain. Other symptoms include poor quality sleep, fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating and certain spots on the body that are especially sensitive to pressure.
Fibromyalgia is common, affecting up to 5 percent of the population. Women are much more likely to have this disorder than men. Symptoms usually begin between the ages of 35 and 50.
The symptoms of fibromyalgia can be associated with many diseases. In addition, there is no diagnostic test that doctors can use to definitively tell a patient that he or she has fibromyalgia.
Treating fibromyalgia is just as challenging as diagnosing it. It's not from a lack of medications. In fact, there are many medications people with fibromyalgia can try. But most of them give only partial relief and often the side effects are worse than the fibromyalgia symptoms.
It's easy to understand the frustration people with fibromyalgia experience - no specific diagnostic test and trials of multiple therapies with variable success. Their doctors often feel the same frustration. Patients understandably can perceive this as skepticism of how bad they feel by their doctor.
It's no surprise that people with fibromyalgia often turn to alternative therapies. However, few studies have been done on alternative therapies to treat fibromyalgia. Most of them show mixed results at best.
In a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that tai chi provided more pain relief and better quality of life over a six month period compared to wellness education and stretching.
Tai chi is a gentle exercise routine that includes sequences of slow movements coordinated with deep breathing and mental focus. Throughout the movements, your body learns how to remain stable and upright while shifting weight.
If you are like many people with fibromyalgia, you probably feel that any type of exercise is too difficult. But exercise may be more effective than medication. You need to start slowly and gradually increase exercise duration and intensity. The gentle and mindful exercise routine of tai chi seems to fit this description perfectly.
(Howard LeWine, M.D. is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Chief Medical Editor of Internet Publishing at Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School.) (For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)