Qigong and Tai Chi to Help Chronic Pain

Medically Reviewed
Woman practicing Qi Gong and Tai Chi for chronic pain
Practicing the gentle movements of tai chi and qigong can relieve pain.Getty Images; Canva; Everyday Health
Qigong (pronounced “chee-gong”) and tai chi are ancient Chinese practices that involve meditation, controlled breathing, and movement to improve a person’s mental and physical health.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), these techniques offer various wellness benefits, including reducing chronic pain.

How It Works

Both exercises are based on the idea and core principle that increasing energy in the body, known as “qi” or “chi,” through gentle and repeated movements can enhance a person’s well-being. The goal is to restore the body’s balance of yin and yang, which are opposing and complementary forces in nature.

Qigong and tai chi share many similarities but also subtle differences. Tai chi, when performed for promoting health, is considered a form of qigong.

Qigong is typically a more simplified practice. It involves stationary exercises that can be done in any order and are usually repeated.

Generally, qigong, used modernly, is performed for a specific situation, such as to open up the chest and lungs.

Some examples of qigong movements include:

  • Raising and lowering the arms
  • Rubbing the ears, feet, and hands
  • Moving your head from side to side
Tai chi movements may include martial arts components and are performed in a specific order.

There are different styles of tai chi, known as schools with various teacher lineages, with 108 movements in all for long forms, and there are fewer in shorter forms.

Tai chi is sometimes referred to as “moving meditation” and is considered more of a full-body approach than traditional qigong.

When it comes to chronic pain relief, the exact mechanism behind qigong and tai chi isn’t fully known. Some researchers theorize that pain relief is achieved by eliminating muscular tension through deep relaxation or boosting feel-good chemicals in the body called endorphins.

Others posit that tai chi may affect the autonomic nervous system, increasing parasympathetic tone — parasympathetic tone relates to a relaxed state of body, with a reduction in stress hormones.

The practices may also offer individualized benefits for specific conditions that cause chronic pain. For example, people with arthritis often experience stiff muscles, which loosen up with movement. Exercise, in general, improves the flow of blood and body fluids through muscles, joints, and tendons, which may help with pain reduction.

Qigong and tai chi may be particularly attractive as a primary or complementary exercise options for people with chronic pain because they are low-impact and simple to perform.

Chronic Pain Symptom Relief

Several studies have suggested qigong and tai chi may help relieve chronic pain in certain individuals.

  • Functional Problems and Pain In a research review, 97 percent of the 886 studies examined showed favorable results from practicing qigong. Several positive outcomes were reported, with improvements in physical function and pain being among the benefits described.

  • Fibromyalgia Musculoskeletal Pain When researchers followed 226 people with fibromyalgia (a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain) for one year, they found that after 24 weeks, participants who practiced tai chi once or twice a week reported more improvement in their symptom control than those who performed aerobic exercises twice a week. And, the longer they practiced tai chi, the better the results. Authors of the study concluded, “Tai chi mind-body treatment results in similar or greater improvement in symptoms than aerobic exercise, the current most commonly prescribed nondrug treatment, for a variety of outcomes for patients with fibromyalgia.”

  • Chronic Low Back Pain In a review of studies, researchers looked at whether tai chi, qigong, and yoga could improve symptoms of chronic low back pain. They found that all three practices were effective at helping pain, reporting positive results, such as reductions in pain-related disability and improved functional ability. However, the researchers noted that there were only three studies available to analyze on qigong and four on tai chi, compared with 25 involving yoga. They say more studies are needed to further investigate this association.

  • Osteoarthritis Results of a small study funded by the NCCIH included 40 participants with knee osteoarthritis and found that tai chi reduced pain and improved function better than an education and stretching regimen.

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis Pain One small study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders suggested that tai chi may improve pain and other symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Though this research appears promising, the NCCIH warns that some studies have rendered conflicting results when it comes to the pain-reducing effects of qigong.

RELATED: 8 Great Pain Relievers You Aren’t Using

One shortcoming is that there are only a limited number of clinical trials conducted on qigong and tai chi for pain relief. What’s more, many of the existing studies involve small samples.

The effects of qigong and tai chi for pain will likely become more evident in the future as more extensive research is conducted.

General Health and Wellness Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi

In addition to helping with chronic pain relief, qigong and tai chi have been shown in studies to offer many health benefits for specific conditions and diseases.

  • Weight Loss?Tai chi may be a suitable weight loss option for older people with obesity. According to one study, the practice was just as effective as group workouts for slimming down and reducing?belly fat?in people 50 and older.

  • Fall Prevention?Several studies have found that tai chi may help prevent?falls?in older adults or people with Parkinson’s disease.

  • Quality of Life, Symptom Improvements in People With Certain Conditions?Tai chi and qigong may also improve symptoms or quality of life for people with the following conditions:

Both qigong and tai chi have been shown to offer a range of physical and mental health improvements that anyone would benefit from. Some of these include:

  • Increased muscle strength
  • Improved cardiovascular and respiratory fitness
  • Better mood and concentration
  • More energy
  • Better sleep
  • Improved balance and stability
Studies have shown qigong and tai chi may boost your immune system, which is important for protecting against viruses and other diseases. Research published in the journal Medicines found participants who practiced qigong and tai chi had increased levels of certain immune cells.

According to a review of research, there’s “excellent evidence” that tai chi is beneficial for osteoarthritis, Parkinson's disease, rehabilitation for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, preventing falls, and improving cognitive capacity in older adults.

Other research suggests that performing these practices relieves overall stress. A review of studies reported that people who performed qigong or tai chi experienced less anxiety and depression and an overall better mood compared with those who didn’t exercise.

Additionally, an analysis supported by the NCCIH found practicing tai chi may improve quality of life in both healthy and chronically ill individuals.

How to Use It

Anyone can try qigong or tai chi. You don’t have to be at a certain fitness level, and there’s no equipment required. Most of the moves are easy to modify from a chair or bed if needed.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting any type of exercise program.

Local recreational centers, fitness clubs, hospitals, or YMCAs may offer qigong or tai chi classes. There are also at-home videos, online resources, and books that provide programs you can follow on your own. However, Mayo Clinic suggests you might first want to seek guidance from a skilled instructor to learn the correct form and proper techniques.

Additionally, a qualified instructor can help you learn how to execute the moves safely, which may be especially important if you have chronic pain.

Instructors don’t have to be licensed, but many organizations offer training and certification programs. You may want to ask about your instructor’s background and experience in helping people with chronic pain.

The Tai Chi for Health Institute provides a directory to help you search for their registered tai chi instructors in your area.

What to Expect

Qigong and tai chi classes typically take place in a quiet and calm environment. You’ll learn the moves at your own pace.

It’s a good idea to wear clothes that are both stretchy and comfortable.

If you struggle with the moves, try to be patient with yourself. Never perform any movements that are painful or worsen your pain.

Most experts recommend that you perform some type of qigong daily to achieve optimal results.

You can practice tai chi as often as you like.

According to Mayo Clinic, you’ll see the greatest benefits if you take classes regularly and continually (for longer than 12 weeks).

Fees: Is Qigong Expensive, and Will Health Insurance Cover it?

The cost of a qigong or tai chi class might depend on where you take it, who the instructor is, how often you attend, and other factors.

You can save money by performing the exercises at home, but many people like the socialization aspect of group classes.

Also, health clubs or senior centers may offer group classes for free or as part of your membership.

Certain health insurance and Medicare plans may cover qigong or tai chi classes.

You’ll have to check with your specific policy for details.

Considerations

Although qigong and tai chi are considered gentle and safe exercise practices, it’s possible to become injured or worsen an existing injury if you don’t use the correct techniques.

A research review of adults with neck pain found that those who participated in qigong had similar side effects (muscle pain, soreness, and headache) as those who participated in other exercise programs.

While the research on qigong and tai chi offers encouraging findings for chronic pain, it’s important to note that many of the clinical trials involved small samples. Funding issues and difficulty in research design contribute to a lack of double-blind studies. For these reasons, experts say the pain-relieving effects of these practices is difficult to quantify.

Resources

Certain resources may be helpful for people who are interested in learning more about the benefits of qigong and tai chi. Here are some of our top picks:

Tai Chi for Health Institute

American Tai Chi and Qigong Association

National Qigong Association

The Qigong Institute

The Arthritis Foundation

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

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