Fibromyalgia patients who regularly practice tai chi show greater symptom improvement than those engaged in an aerobic exercise program, results from a clinical trial suggest.
The study, “Effect of tai chi versus aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia: comparative effectiveness randomized controlled trial,” was published in the journal BMJ.
Patients with fibromyalgia experience chronic musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, sleep abnormalities, and physical and psychological impairments. There is currently no cure for fibromyalgia, and treatment generally involves a combination of medication, exercise, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Many studies have shown that exercise in particular can be very beneficial for fibromyalgia patients, and it is now a recommended part of standard care. Patients, however, often have a hard time adhering to exercise programs, commonly due to the fibromyalgia symptoms. Therefore, more approaches are needed to help patients exercise.
Tai chi — a form of mind-body therapy rooted in traditional Chinese medicine — has been shown through previous clinical trials to effectively improve pain, as well as physical and mental health, in fibromyalgia patients.
However, the benefits of tai chi have yet to be compared with those of aerobic exercise — a common treatment for fibromyalgia. Additionally, it is not known how frequently or for how long patients with fibromyalgia should practice tai chi.
To assess this, researchers at Tufts Medical Center in Boston conducted a randomized clinical trial (NCT01420640) for 52 weeks to compare the effectiveness of tai chi versus aerobic exercise in 226 adults with fibromyalgia.
Patients participated in either supervised aerobic exercise twice weekly for 24 weeks, or one of four tai chi programs once or twice weekly for either 12 or 24 weeks. Effectiveness of the programs was determined by a change in revised fibromyalgia impact questionnaire (FIQR) scores at 24 weeks.
As expected, FIQR scores improved in all five treatment groups. However, the tai chi groups demonstrated a statistically significant improvement compared with patients in the aerobic exercise group.
Specifically, patients who participated in tai chi twice weekly for 24 weeks saw a greater benefit than patients who did aerobic exercise twice weekly for 24 weeks — indicating that, at a similar intensity and duration, tai chi is more beneficial.
Patients who did tai chi for 24 weeks also had a greater improvement than patients who did it for 12 weeks. Interestingly, patients who did tai chi twice a week did not exhibit significant improvement compared with patients that just did tai chi once a week.
Patients in the tai chi group attended more training sessions than patients in the aerobic exercise group, suggesting that patients adhere better to a tai chi program.
Other parameters such as the patient’s global assessment, anxiety, self-efficacy, and coping strategies were lalso significantly improved in patients in the tai chi group compared with the aerobic exercise group.
“Tai chi mind-body treatment results in similar or greater improvement in symptoms than aerobic exercise, the current most commonly prescribed non-drug treatment, for a variety of outcomes for patients with fibromyalgia,” the authors concluded.