100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. You know that’s a large number, but consider the magnitude. Try and to count to 1 million. Did you know it would take you about six days to count to 1 million? That’s if you did not take breaks to eat and sleep! So multiply that by 100. Think again — 100 million people with chronic pain is an astounding figure. Musculoskeletal pain is one of the most common forms of chronic pain. There are plenty of medications available to treat pain but many have unwanted consequences including addiction and liver damage. Exercise is often recommended to help with some forms of chronic pain. However, not all exercise is an option for everyone. That’s where Tai Chi comes in. Tai Chi is accessible to almost anyone and is a valuable tool to alleviate, resolve and prevent chronic pain.
There are a few reasons why Tai Chi may help with pain:
Poor posture is a common contributor to musculoskeletal pain. Tai Chi focuses on elongating the vertical spine and neck which leads to “fewer unnecessary muscle contractions throughout the musculoskeletal system.” An elongated spine and neck reduces stooping or slouching and other habits that lead to compression and weight on your discs. Your back has three natural curves. One in the neck, another in the upper back and one in your lower back. Good posture maintains those curves, while bad posture stresses and pulls your muscles leading to pain.
Tai Chi also addresses your waist and hips and how you sit. Tai Chi leads to good flexibility and range of motion in the hip and pelvic area (the hip flexors, psoas and iliacus muscles). Weakness, stiffness and imbalances in those muscles may lead to knee, back and neck pain.
Finally, the alignment of your feet also affects your hip and back muscles. Tai Chi may help correct imbalances in your feet, including the range of motion in your ankles and how you distribute your body weight as you walk.
2. Safe Movements
One key principle of Tai Chi is called the 70-percent rule. The rule means that you should not exert more than 70% of your maximum potential when you move. This involves how you stretch your muscles and your joints. Overexertion is often a cause of injury and a source of pain. Additionally, overexertion sets off a dangerous cycle. If you hurt yourself by going too far when doing something, you are likely to be afraid of the activity the next time you do it.
For example, a person who pulled a muscle dancing may be afraid of dancing or dance differently in fear of hurting that muscle again. It’s human to react that way. Perhaps it is tied to self-preservation. The problem with that fear is it leads to guarded movements. The body is an interconnected system and when you effect a guarded movement you are likely using a different set of muscles (usually the “wrong” ones), posture, joints or chain of body movements which may be dysfunctional and lead to more pain. Then that pain causes fear which leads to more guarding and more pain. Tai Chi can help you break the cycle or not even get there, by teaching you how to move safely.
3. Addressing the Psychological Component
Part of pain is clearly physical but part of it is psychological. Studies have shown that people who meditate report improvement in the pain they feel. One theory is the notion that stress and anxiety increase inflammatory responses in your body. Therefore, meditation may prevent or resolve these responses. Another theory involves thresholds for pain. Some people can tolerate more pain than others. Some studies have shown that people who meditate have a higher threshold for pain. This is thought to be a result of the fact that they don’t dwell on or exaggerate pain sensations. Therefore, the meditative aspects of Tai Chi may help with pain.
These are just a few ways Tai Chi may help you with your pain. You may try it for the pain, but you will also reap other benefits along the way such as better sleep, reduced falls and less stress.