By Celeste Cooper
Fibromyalgia (FM) is the third most prevalent rheumatologic disorder in the United States, and the hallmark symptom is body-wide pain, followed by thinking problems, fatigue and problems with sleep. Medications to treat our symptoms have mixed reviews, but the one thing that most agree on is that exercise can play a big role in helping our pain. So, in honor of T’ai Chi awareness month, I felt it important to share information with you.
Many of us remember the effects of work hardening programs—cringe—grimace. It’s no wonder we learned to shy away from such programs, because we now know they may cause more harm than good for those of us with fibromyalgia. There are studies that indicate a biological reason for why exercise intolerance occurs, but there are also studies that show in most cases, exercise is a necessary and helpful thing to do – when done right. We must start low and go slow so our body can adapt without stressing our immune and autonomic nervous system.
This is important because our lymph system plays a huge role in ridding our body of toxins and supporting our ability to fight off other invaders. The movement of lymph fluid (important to maintaining a healthy immune response) relies solely on body movement for circulation, unlike blood vessels that have helpmates. So, when we don’t move, cellular debris clogs up our drains, we swell, and we further compromise our ability to fight off infection. Movement is so important that researchers are working to see if T’ai Chi might not be the best movement strategy for us (1).
So, What is T’ai Chi?
T’ai Chi is an ancient Chinese dancelike meditative movement form that helps relieve stress while improving our body’s physical and mental well-being. It is low impact and slow. And while it isn’t considered an aerobic exercise, like running or swimming, for instance, it does address key components to fitness.
Tai Chi has the following benefits:
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- Strengthens muscle
- Improves flexibility
- Improves balance (particularly helpful for our bull in the china cabinet experiences)
- Improves the circulation of blood and lymph
- Enhances the immune system
- Improves cognition and focus
- Relieves stress
- Moves focus away from pain
- Provides feelings of well-being
Because I have a great love and appreciation for dance, I have found a personal connection to T’ai Chi. In my sixth decade of life, I still find great joy in gyrating to a song that brings back special memories. The gentle movements of T’ai Chi and the soft and relaxing tones and melody of T’ai Chi music (which you can download from the internet) allow me to embrace the romance of it all. It provides me with a special connection of body, mind, and spirit. The instrumental melody of T’ai Chi music and focused breathing allows my mind to sway with the movements, feel the energy, and relax into the moment. I don’t know of any other thing I love to do this much that keeps me moving. And better yet, T’ai Chi is safe for most people.
Each T’ai Chi movement has purpose and a symbolic meaning, and there are several different styles of T’ai Chi, each type named after its founder. The oldest style is T’ai Chi Chen, which consists of low stances and powerful movements. The Yang family first became involved in the study of T’ai Chi Chuan, which is the most common form of T’ai Chi practiced in the west. Other common types are Wu and Sun style. You may find combination styles of T’ai Chi, which incorporate movements from more than one approach, because each T’ai Chi style has something different to offer. The important thing is that you find the style you feel is right for you and aligns with your physical abilities and goals.?
T’ai Chi is a low-level activity that is unlikely to trigger a flare, especially in comparison with other forms of exercise. And, if you also have myofascial pain syndrome, which many of us do, T’ai Chi is helpful for stretching tender, contracted muscles. But what I find most important is the romance. The expressive and pleasurable feeling I get from the emotional attraction has a special way of improving my mind-body connection, and I wish the same for you.
April is T’ai Chi awareness month. If you haven’t thought about it before, maybe now you will. So, spread the news, help others find the romance T’ai Chi can provide fibromyalgia.
- Wang C, et al. A novel comparative effectiveness study of Tai Chi versus aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25633475
Celeste Cooper, RN, is a frequent contributor to ProHealth. She is an advocate, writer and published author, and a person living with chronic pain. Celeste is lead author of Integrative Therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain and Broken Body, Wounded Spirit, and Balancing the See Saw of Chronic Pain (a four book series). She spends her time enjoying her family and the rewards she receives from interacting with nature through her writing and photography. You can learn more about Celeste’s writing, advocacy work, helpful tips, and social network connections at CelesteCooper.com.