In this article we will discuss what arthritis is, what causes it, and how it can be positively affected through the regular practice of tai chi.
The word arthritis comes from two Greek words meaning joint inflammation. “Arthros” refers to joints, the articulations between skeletal bones. “Itis” refers to inflammation.
Western medicine treats arthritis as a disease, and focuses on its symptomatic treatment through the use of drugs and surgery.
For a moment, let us think of it as a process rather than a disease. A process can get better or it can get worse. To an extent, this will be determined by the course of action we take.
Will a healthy lifestyle help?
Generally speaking, the best bet we have to reverse and prevent the arthritic process is through adopting a healthy lifestyle. This includes a positive mental outlook, a healthy non inflammatory diet, regular intelligent exercise, and some form of stress management, such as meditation.
Stress and the nervous system
Stress causes the actual physical nerves in our body to contract. Your nervous system controls all of the other systems of your body. When the nerves contract, everything contract: muscles, joints, blood vessels, organs, glands, etc.
Stress is the number one cause of arthritic pain because of its effect on the contraction of joints. When the joints contract, the normal space between the bones is reduced. This causes friction between the bones, resulting in inflammation of joints.
How tai chi affects arthritis
Tai chi’s movements are all performed in circles and spirals, (see article on silk reeling) as opposed to many physical activities that are done linearly/angularly. These circular movements do not irritate joints the way stop and go linear movements do. Hence, there will be little or no increase in heat within the joint capsule (ie inflammation). This inflammatory process, over a long period of time, is what leads to the changes in bone structure and therefore the pain associated with it.
When the temperature within a joint increases, there is a buildup of acidity. The body’s reaction to this is to send calcium (from bone reserves) via the blood to the joint to neutralize the acid. This causes a buildup of calcification within the joint (spurs, etc) as well as a decalcification in the bone storage. So there is a double problem that may result – arthritic joints and osteoporosis.
The buildup of calcium between bones can actually cause the two bones to fuse into one. When this happens, that joint no longer can move, so the joints surrounding it then have to work extra, leading to more inflammation.
Another point we must consider is the effect of stress on our joints. Stress causes tension. Tension causes the body to contract – muscles, joints, organs, glands, blood vessels… every part of the body is affected by this stress related tension.
If we do not do something on a regular basis to reverse or balance this process, it can lead to the arthritic process, as the space between bones is reduced. This is another way that heat can build up in the joints (friction).
Regular practice of tai chi calms the mind and so has a positive effect on reversing the buildup of physical and emotional tension. When the physical body relaxes, the tension in the joints lets go, and normal joint space is restored.
Gravity is your friend
Another point we need to consider is the affect of gravity on the joints. In the practice of tai chi, because there is no pounding of weight bearing joints, the potential for deterioration of these joints is eliminated. This pounding surely affects weight bearing joints in a negative manner. This causes a reduction in the height of intervertebral spinal discs and also the bursae within joint capsules, especially in the weight bearing joints (hips, knees, ankles). The pounding reduces the amount of synovial fluid within the joint, and once again leading to friction between bones, causing inflammation.
Also, the rules for posture during tai chi practice are very strict. These rules teach us how to properly align each part of our body with every other part, in strict alignment with gravity. This point can not be emphasized enough!
And lastly, let us consider the effect that the intention has on our joints. During your practice, the mind is fully engaged. There is a continuous opening and closing (Kai He) of the entire body that is interwoven in movements, a kind of “pulsing” action that restores the synovial fluid within the joint capsule (and spinal discs). This pulsing is something unique to tai chi and other internal arts and qigong.
- Learn tai chi early on and practice it daily all of your life. Your best bet to prevent arthritis and also to reverse the process.
- Make tai chi available to children with the understanding of the effects it has on health for the whole life.
- Offer classes to seniors and see its positive effects on their range of motion and elimination of joint aches and pains.
- Tai chi is good for everyone at every age!
The following two links explain and demonstrate the Tai Chi Warm Ups – aka “The Daily Dozen.”
Click here for a more in depth article on the positive effects of tai chi for arthritis.
Here is an article scientifically documenting the efficacy of tai chi practice on pain, stiffness, and function of people with osteoarthritis. Click here.