Older Americans suffering from osteoarthritis may find help in an even older source - ancient Chinese healing treatments and exercise.
New studies by U.S. researchers are revealing the potential healing power of acupuncture, Tai Chi exercise and Qi Gong to reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, which causes pain and reduced motion in the joints and spine. Experts say there is no current medicinal cure for osteoarthritis.
In a 2009 study published in Arthritis Care & Research, Dr. Chenchen Wang and colleagues at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, recruited 40 subjects averaging 65 years of age suffering from knee osteoarthritis to participate in a 60 minute Tai Chi session, instructed by a Tai Chi master, twice weekly for 12 weeks. Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese mind–body exercise that enhances balance, strength and flexibility, and reduces pain, depression and anxiety in diverse patient populations with chronic conditions.
“It’s very exciting,” says Wang, who says the study showed that Tai Chi appeared to improve physical function and reduce pain and depression. “We found that Tai Chi does have a lot of benefits for the elderly for physical and mental conditions.”
In June 2008, Dr. Kevin Chen and fellow researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine, Baltimore, published a study in Clinical Rheumatology revealing the effectiveness of external Qi Gong therapy on people with knee osteoarthritis. External Qi Gong therapy is similar to therapeutic touch, in which the well-trained healer applies his/her Qi energy to the patient, Chen says. Chinese medicine considers knee arthritis to be caused by Qi blockage in the knee area.
Among the three groups treated for two weeks, Chen says “the placebo group had a 33 percent reduction in pain, the group by Healer 1 had a 35 percent reduction in pain, while the group by Healer 2 had a 55 percent reduction of pain after two weeks of treatment.” This led Chen to conclude that External Qi Gong Therapy might have a role in the treatment of osteoarthritis, depending upon the qualities of the healer.
Chinese acupuncture also has been studied to aid in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis. Dr. Lixing Lao of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine has conducted three acupuncture studies from 1993 to 2004, from a small pilot study to a 570 patient clinical trail.
“Patients who were randomly assigned to the acupuncture treatment group had significant pain relief and function improvement as compared to placebo/sham control,” Lao says.
Researchers realize more studies need to be done to incorporate Chinese exercise and healing practices into mainstream medicine in the U.S. But they are seeing hopeful signs.
“Acupuncture is more accepted by the public than any time before,” Lao says, citing a recently published survey conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “There were 27.2 visits to acupuncturists per year per 1000 persons in 1997, but in 2007, this number increased to 79.2 visits per year per 1000 persons.”
Plus, Lao says, more medical acupuncturists are working in hospitals. “For example, in our University of Maryland School of Medicine, not only is acupuncture service provided by licensed acupuncturists in the center for integrative medicine, but also by medical acupuncturists for their patients in the shock trauma center, cancer center and anesthesiology department.”