Practical use of research and science.
Q: How does Tai Chi help relieve pain?
This question frequently comes up in discussions with clients who are dealing with pain that consistently acts as a barrier to improved function and quality of life. Regardless of diagnosis, many people describe pain as a primary complaint and for various reasons are dissatisfied with the idea of long term management through medications.
Practicing Tai Chi regularly has been shown to decrease pain reporting in clients suffering from rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, fibromyalgia, as well as low back and neck pain. This consistent finding of pain reduction in a wide variety of diagnostic categories may highlight questions of the underlying physiologic response to regular Tai Chi practice.
What is pain? To answer how Tai Chi reduces pain we need to first understand the mechanisms of pain regardless of diagnosis. New pain science is revealing that “pain is output”, meaning that the brain will manufacture an experience of pain based on several factors, including but not limited to, sensory information coming from the periphery. We like to say that if sensory information + past experiences + thoughts + beliefs = THREAT, then the brain will create pain to alert your consciousness to pay closer attention and alter behavior. As rehabilitation professionals not necessarily trained in attending to intangible factors like memories and beliefs, we tend to fall back on the concept of sensory input being the sole contributor to pain. We’re befuddled when evidence to the contrary shows up, such as phantom limb pain. If pain is generated from the periphery and the periphery no longer exists, shouldn’t the pain go away? Fortunately we don’t have to dive deep into people’s minds to help them find some natural pain relief strategies.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) also plays a large role in our experience of pain. The sympathetic branch of the ANS is activated in response to threat and amplifies physiologic processes that contribute to painful experiences. Conversely, when the parasympathetic branch is activated circulation improves, breathing deepens, muscle tone decreases, and endorphins levels rise; resulting in systemic relaxation and an enhanced state of wellbeing. Regular Tai Chi and Qigong practice have been shown to promote a parasympathetic shift while simultaneously improving muscle strength, coordination, and balance.
In essence, practicing Tai Chi in general may reduce painful experiences via a balancing of the autonomic nervous system. Rehabilitative Qigong & Tai Chi builds on this ANS effect and additionally localizes treatment to the region of primary concern in order to promote functional gains through painless means.
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