How Tai Chi fits into Physical Therapy

Physical therapists (PTs) are beginning to integrate Tai Chi into their patients’ regimens. Consider the study we included in our past blog post here. If you believe Tai Chi is a newfangled (even though it’s not new) Eastern art that has no place in your life, consider what PTs have discovered and embraced about Tai Chi.

Tai Chi is particularly important for fall prevention among PT patients: “Tai chi is fantastic for the elderly. It requires them to be slow to move outside their base of control and center of mass and really changes their balance and works all those muscles we know keep people upright.” PTs believe that Tai chi regimen will reduce repeated falls, revisits and readmissions to hospitals and consequently reduce medical costs.

Tai Chi works to reduce falls by strengthening leg muscles, improving balance building confidence and equipping older adults with the ability to recover from and prevent falls. For example, Tai chi teaches you how to narrow your support to a single-leg base. If you can maintain your balance longer on one leg, you have some time to react and prevent yourself from falling when something knocks you off of one leg or during any transitional movement that involves having only one leg on the ground.

Also, sometimes the problem with physical therapy is that the patient has another underlying condition that interferes with traditional physical therapy. For example, a PT recounted a situation where her patient had “volatile” blood pressure and had trouble getting out of bed for balance training. In that instance, the PT incorporated Tai chi breathing exercises and other modified tai chi movements which finally allowed the patient to get out of bed for the PT’s gait training.

The same physical therapist incorporated Tai chi to address her patient’s trouble with peripheral neuropathy. Patients who suffer from peripheral neuropathy often have trouble feeling anything with their feet or fingers. This makes daily activities like driving (they cannot feel the brake/gas pedals) or even walking difficult (cannot feel their footing on different surfaces). She observed that Tai chi improved his balance and he was able to feel his feet better when driving. She said, “that’s not something traditional western PT addresses. Read more about Tai Chi and peripheral neuropathy on our blog here.

Another aspect of Tai Chi that translates into physical therapy is relaxation. Physical therapy exercises and sessions are more effective when the patient is relaxed and his or her muscles are “loose.” With Tai Chi, PTs can help their patients, relax, maintain the correct posture and then use breathing techniques plus mind-body coordination and awareness to focus on increasing flexibility as well as strength.

Tai Chi is also perfect for physical therapy because it can be done by almost everyone and may be adjusted for varying physical and medical conditions. For example, a PT can modify Tai chi movements for someone who is in a wheelchair, those who are bedridden or nonweight bearing. One PT shared the following account:

“One student in John’s class was in her 80s and had trouble sitting on the floor and getting up again. John taught her a movement that allows the student to roll up and get off the floor, using her legs. Although she resisted performing the exercise, John continued to push her–despite her protests–until she learned how to do it.

Later, when she was playing golf, she drove a ball into the woods. As the woman retrieved the ball, she slipped on a fallen tree and became trapped under the branches. Using this exercise, the woman got out from under the branches–a task she couldn’t have done before Tai Chi. ‘Falls don’t occur often,’ John says, but when they do, ‘it’s important to know how to recover,’ he says. ‘I think Tai Chi gives people a little bit of an edge on that.’ More studies demonstrate Tai Chi’s edge in helping seniors maintain balance, strength, cardiovascular activity and confidence.”

Tai Chi fits into physical therapy in the following ways:

Tai Chi Addresses Physical Impairments
• Range of motion (AROM, PROM)
• Flexibility
• Strength
• Postural stability (muscular endurance, proprioception)
• Bone density (Weight-bearing exercise)
• CV system: ↑ circulation, ↓BP, ↓ RR

Tai Chi Addresses Functional Limitations
• Balance and coordination
• Gait improvements (↓ risk of falls)

Enhances Mindfulness
• ↓ stress / ↑ relaxation
• Improves overall Quality of Life

So, if you don’t think Tai Chi is for you because you only believe in Western medicine, consider how Tai Chi fits into physical therapy and how it may align a lot more with Western medicine than you imagined.


Quinnipiac University Physical Therapy Students Research Fall Prevention And Tai Chi

PT Classroom – Understanding the Fundamentals of Tai Chi ׀ by Tricia Yu, MA, Kristi Hallisy PT, MS, OCS, CMPT, CTI, Patricia Culotti, BSA, CTI, MTF

The Power of Tai Chi

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