For patients with painful knee osteoarthritis, tai chi was as helpful as physical therapy in reducing pain and improving physical functioning, according to a new study partially funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The results of the study, conducted at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, were published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
In this study, 204 patients age 40 or older who had knee pain and proven osteoarthritis of the knee were randomly assigned to standardized group tai chi training (two 1-hour sessions each week for 12 weeks) or standard one-on-one physical therapy (two 30-minute sessions per week for 6 weeks followed by 6 additional weeks of home-based exercises monitored by the research staff). Both groups were then encouraged to continue their tai chi practice or home exercises for a total of 52 weeks. Patients in the two groups had similar decreases in pain and improvements in physical functioning after 12 weeks, and the benefits of treatment were maintained for the full 52 weeks of the study. Patients in the tai chi group had more improvement in depression symptoms and quality of life than those in the physical therapy group.
Previous research has shown that tai chi—a traditional Chinese mind and body practice that combines meditation with deep breathing, relaxation, and gentle movements—can reduce pain and improve physical functioning in patients with knee osteoarthritis, but this is the first study in which tai chi was compared with a standard treatment that’s known to be helpful. An important strength of the study was that the participants were typical of people with knee osteoarthritis; many were obese, and many were older. Nevertheless, they were able to participate in and benefit from both of the treatments that were evaluated.
The researchers concluded that standardized tai chi should be considered as an effective therapeutic option for knee osteoarthritis.
- Wang C, Schmid CH, Iversen MD, et al. Comparative effectiveness of tai chi versus physical therapy for knee osteoarthritis: a randomized trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2016;165(2):77-86.
- Tai chi versus physical therapy for knee osteoarthritis [summary for patients]. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2016;165(2).