Tai chi practice may improve lower-body muscular function and provide qualitative health benefits to people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), according to a pilot study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders (2010; 11, 43). Researchers from Diakonhjemmet Hospital in Oslo, Norway, conducted a quantitative and qualitative study to examine how tai chi practice can affect RA disease activity, physical function and health status and to examine the perceptions of patients during the experience of tai chi.
Investigators recruited 15 RA patients, aged 18–70—two men and 13 women—who were in stable health and had no prior experience with tai chi. Subjects participated in the Twelve Movement Tai Chi for Arthritis program twice weekly for 1 hour over 12 weeks. Researchers collected assessments at three intervals: 1 week before the program started, 1 week after it ended and 11 weeks after that. Two weeks after program completion, study members also participated in one hourlong focus group with an experienced moderator familiar with tai chi.
Data analysis showed no decrease in disease activity but did show improvement in Timed Stand tests, a finding strengthened by patient reports of better walking ability and more movement confidence. Interviews showed that group members supported each other in being physically active and enjoyed exercise more when they worked together.
Limitations of the study included its small size, lack of control group and single group design. Strengths included the fact that independent examiners conducted the assessments, researchers used a wide range of assessments, and the interviewer was experienced with focus groups. Study authors recommended more research focusing on the psychosocial aspects and the patient experience, to provide a broader understanding of why tai chi provides health benefits.