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Tai Chi For Posture And Back Pain
By: ROBERT HUMPHREYS, DC
Tai Chi is a form of exercise that has recently been gaining popularity as a way to relieve and/or manage back pain and neck pain. It is often easy to associate Tai Chi with groups of people in parks or gyms moving slowly and deliberately in synchronization. These people are using the same Tai Chi principles and movements created in ancient China and still practiced all around the world as a healing exercise.
Basic elements of Tai Chi
Though the precise origin of Tai Chi is arguable, some facts about its history remain constant. Tai Chi emulates the motions and ideas behind an ancient Chinese martial art called Tai Chi Quan. Tai Chi Quan routines required the practitioners to be tranquil and calm, emphasizing slow and soft movements. Tai Chi is an exercise modified to inherit nearly all the ideas behind Tai Chi Quan, but using the method as a means to attain healing qualities rather than combative awareness.
Unlike other forms of exercise such as yoga, Tai Chi involves a greater degree of movement. And unlike many types of aerobic exercise (such as running) Tai Chi does not involve any jarring motions that create impact on the spine. It is a slow and deliberate, flowing movement of the body.
The practice of Tai Chi entails three key components:
Movement—slow and fluid movements improve the body's alignment, posture, strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and stamina. Many of these benefits of Tai Chi are consistent with many other forms of low-impact exercise, with the added benefit of focus on improved posture, balance and alignment.
Breathing—focused and rhythmical breathing emphasizes a relaxed body and encourages strong circulation. Oxygenated blood flows to the muscles and brain during Tai Chi.
Meditation/state of mind—a meditative state of mind during Tai Chi, coupled with these movements and breathing is said to dissipate stress and anxiety, which helps relieve pain caused by psychological and emotional factors.
Benefits of Tai Chi
A number of studies have shown that Tai Chi provides several benefits—physical as well as mental. And some of the benefits of Tai Chi are enjoyed even when not doing the exercises, such as improved posture throughout the day.
Tai Chi has demonstrated usefulness in the prevention and treatment of certain problems such as back pain. Importantly, Tai Chi is non-invasive, relatively inexpensive, and gentle on the spine, so many people with back pain are starting to try it as an adjunct to (or sometimes instead of) traditional medical approaches to manage back pain. Furthermore, Tai Chi does not require any expensive equipment and can be practiced anywhere.
Tai Chi theory
Tai Chi emphasizes breathing and movement that are both flowing and graceful. Though its primary action is in the movement and breathing, this must all be carried out with particular mental focus during Tai Chi. This is why Tai Chi has often been referred to as "meditation in motion."
In theory, Tai Chi directly affects qi—the "vital energy" or "life force" of the body—where proper flow of qi is said to be necessary to maintain health. During Tai Chi, this energy flows through the body through a network of 20 pathways (meridians from acupuncture). When these pathways are blocked, qi does not flow properly, and in theory, illness ensues. Tai Chi is thought to stimulate this flow of qi through the body and organs through its movements and breathing. Tai Chi can be seen as acupuncture from the inside.
From a more scientific standpoint, Tai Chi is not unlike other forms of low-impact exercises; however, Tai Chi focuses more specifically on posture and alignment.
Body alignment and posture in Tai Chi—Training the body to avoid slouching and rounding the shoulders through better posture and spinal alignment reduces stress on the components of the spine. Like other martial arts and exercises, correct form is emphasized through consistent training. Practicing Tai Chi may therefore reduce the practitioner's back pain through application.
Balance and coordination inTai Chi—Transferring of weight from one leg to the other, while extending and retracting limbs, and flexing joints, plays a critical role in improving the balance of the practitioner. Tai Chi aids in enhancing the coordination of the practitioner by increasing proprioception—the body's automatic perception of movement and spatial orientation through interpreting signals from the muscles, joints, and connective tissues; "position sense."
A heightened position sense acquired through Tai Chi is helpful for preventing an accident that may lead to back pain. It also helps reduce aggravation of existing back pain by reducing awkward movements. There has been considerable evidence showing that Tai Chi practiced by the elderly greatly reduces the chances of falls.
Tone and strength of muscles Tai Chi—As with any other form of physical exercise, Tai Chi provides practitioners with an overall toning and strengthening of specific muscles. The weight bearing aspects of the Tai Chi exercise have even been shown to stimulate bone growth, which may be beneficial to help prevent osteoporosis.
Many of the Tai Chi movements use the spine as a pivot point, gently flexing both the spine and the muscles around it back and forth and around. Through repetition of Tai Chi movements, the muscles around the spine, including the abdominals and hamstrings, strengthen and become more flexible, both of which are important to improve posture and reduce back pain.
Releasing stress and anxiety Tai Chi—Deep, focused breathing in conjunction with related movements of the stomach, chest, diaphragm, and other parts of the body bring the mind into a meditative state. Tai Chi also intends for the practitioner to seek an "inner stillness" with a clear mind and focus. This type of Tai Chi action is thought to help release stress, and stress is a factor in causing and/or exacerbating many forms of back pain.
Tai Chi practice
The gentle nature of Tai Chi allows for a wide range of possible practitioners. For example, people who find high impact aerobics and other exercise routines painful or uncomfortable are excellent candidates for Tai Chi, a slow moving, low-impact exercise.
Unlike other exercises that can be learned simply from following diagrams, Tai Chi is a fluid movement that requires very deliberate and precise movements. It is therefore best to find an instructor who can demonstrate the Tai Chi movements and techniques.
Tai Chi sessions usually are in a group format and last for approximately an hour. Beginning with a warm-up, the group learns and follows the Tai Chi motions of a 'form'—a series of movements connected fluidly. There are different types of forms in Tai Chi, such as, the Yang long form, the Yang short form, and the Wu form, which is more dance like. Each Tai Chi form is composed of several postures, each with a carefully chosen name that correlates with its movements - names such as 'Grasping Sparrow's Tail', 'Pushing the Mountain' and 'Embracing the Tiger'. The Tai Chi session may end with a cool-down
Each individual Tai Chi movement can be modified to best fit the user. If a particular motion stresses a problem area, it may be modified or eliminated from the routine. Once a Tai Chi form has been learned, practitioners can implement the movements and techniques in the privacy of their own homes, or continue in a group environment. Tai Chi group classes usually cost in the range of $10 - $15 per session.
There are virtually no contraindications for Tai Chi, other than to avoid the sensation of sharp pain. Because of its gentle nature, safety ultimately has largely to do with a particular instructor and the individual who is practicing Tai Chi. Taking usual exercise precautions such as warming up, cooling down, and stretching will be beneficial. As always, it is also important to check with one's treating physician before starting any new exercise program such as Tai Chi.