A recent pilot study was done in Hong Kong that looks at how Ai Chi affects subjects with knee osteoarthritis, which was published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science. Following just five weeks of bi-weekly Ai Chi classes, subjects reported significant decreases in chronic knee pain and knee stiffness and improved daily task performance. Why would doing Ai Chi have this effect?
Just being in warm water relaxes muscles and soft tissue. Knee joint temperature receptors block the signals from pain receptors. And the hydrostatic pressure of the water improves circulation to reduce joint swelling and pain. At shoulder depth, the water’s buoyancy unloads the lower limb joints by 90%, significantly lessening the pressure on the damaged knee joint.
But when my friends who spend nearly every weekday in a warm water pool joined me in Ai Chi, they reported relief of chronic knee pain for the remainder of the day that they had not experienced before. Something more was happening…
The diaphragmatic breathing that is a part of doing Ai Chi stimulates the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system, enhancing relaxation. This is the type of breathing I used during childbirth to lessen pain, as a part of a battery of Lamaze techniques. Enhancing relaxation sets the foundation for another important component of Ai Chi: movement. The researchers in the Chinese study point out that Ai Chi involves a wide range of increasingly more complex movements on a diminishing base of support and uses both closed and open chain patterns and weight shifting, which place varying demands on muscles. These are progressive movements with constantly changing variables. Movement is important to normal joint function, and the water creates a comfortable environment to move in ways that are often painful outside of the water. As one of my group participants commented, “I finally felt like I was moving normally.” While doing Ai Chi cannot repair joint damage, it can allow for pain curbing movement in the water.
This pilot study supports the pain relieving effects of Ai Chi that I have seen anecdotally, but it only provides a preliminary look. It opens the door for future studies to substantiate these early results that include more participants and a non-Ai Chi performing comparison group.
You must take the first step. The first steps will take some effort, maybe pain. But after that, everything that has to be done is real-life movement. Ben Stein