Tai Chi and…Shingles?

Have you had chicken pox? If you have, then you are at risk for shingles. When your chicken pox “healed,” what actually happened is the virus that causes it called varicella zoster became dormant in your body. It is still there, but it’s not really causing illness because your immune system keeps it at bay. In some people, the virus remains dormant forever. However, in others, the virus “awakens” due to a weakened immune system compromised by other disease, medication or age. Instead of having chicken pox again, they develop shingles or Herpes Zoster. Shingles is more common in persons over the age of 50 and the CDC recommends vaccines for those over 60. Interestingly, a National Institutes of Health study showed that Tai Chi increased immunity factors that suppress shingles by 40%.

Clearly you survived Chicken Pox, so can Shingles really be that bad? In short, yes. Chances are, you are not as young as you were when you had chicken pox. Your immune system is not the same and shingles is not the same as chicken pox. Shingles usually presents as a band or strip of a painful rash and or blisters that has been described as “…excruciating, aching, burning, stabbing, and shock-like. It has been compared to the pain of childbirth or kidney stones. The pain from shingles can cause depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Also, shingles can interfere with activities of daily living, like dressing, bathing, eating, cooking, shopping, and travel.” After all of that, shingles may also lead to scarring! Not to mention, the pain has been known to last months or even cause years of intermittent suffering. Additionally, not only are older adults more likely to develop shingles, they are also more likely to develop “postherpetic neuralgia.” This is pain from nerve damage caused by shingles.

The study that examined Tai Chi and shingles involved 112 men and women between the ages of 59 and 86 who were randomly assigned to either a Tai Chi class or a health education program for 16 weeks. All participants had already had Chicken Pox and received the varicella zoster vaccine. Periodic testing of their blood during the study measured their immunity to the varicella zoster virus. It is important to note that at the beginning of the study, both groups had similar immunity to the virus. 9 weeks later, the investigators tested the participants’ immunity to the virus and compared it to their levels at the beginning of the study.

“Tai Chi alone was found to increase participants’ immunity to varicella as much as the vaccine typically produces in 30- to 40-year-old adults, and Tai Chi combined with the vaccine produced a significantly higher level of immunity, about a 40 percent increase, over that produced by the vaccine alone. The study further showed that the Tai Chi group’s rate of increase in immunity over the course of the 25-week study was double that of the health education (control) group. The Tai Chi and health education groups’ VZV immunity had been similar when the study began.”

That being said, don’t skip the vaccine if it is recommended for you. Always follow the advice of your medical professional.  Remember that the study combined Tai Chi and the vaccine. Just consider this yet another reason to choose Tai Chi, especially if the vaccine may not be suitable for you. Anything that boosts your immune system is worth adopting and Tai Chi is a great supplement. Plus, if the pain of shingles is not enough of a deterrent for you, consider the fact that if you have shingles, you can still spread the varicella zoster virus to others. If you develop shingles and you come into contact with someone who has never had chicken pox, that someone can contract the virus from you and develop chicken pox. You don’t want to be that person. Especially if the person you make sick is pregnant or otherwise suffering from a compromised immune system. While healthy children bounce back from chicken pox, others are not so lucky.


The CDC on Shingles.

NIH study on Tai Chi and Shingles.

WebMD Shingles Center.

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