The art of fighting arthritis

At 68 years of age, Dr Paul Lam has the pulse rate of an elite athlete and is more flexible than people half his age. He has also suffered arthritis for 50 years.

While arthritis is often seen as a normal part of ageing, it is not a natural consequence of growing older.  It is a disease state affecting the musculo-skeletal system, especially the joints.

It is Australia’s foremost cause of disability and chronic pain, with 3.85 million people affected.

“Arthritis” is actually an umbrella term covering about 100 different conditions. The most common are osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout, which account for about 95 per cent of cases.

These conditions are grouped together because of their similar effects on the body, including pain, stiffness, inflammation and damage to joints. This can lead to weakness, instability and joint deformities.

There may be increased difficulty with everyday tasks such as dressing, walking, driving and preparing meals.
Quality of life is affected as sufferers find it difficult to do things they previously did with ease. While arthritis is not curable it is usually manageable and many options are available to help deal with the condition.

One option that is proving to be effective in managing arthritis is tai chi.

There are now more than 30 studies showing improved health outcomes in arthritis patients from the practice of tai chi.  The leading study in this field, conducted by Professor Leigh Callahan from the University of North Carolina, showed significant health benefits for people with all types of arthritis.

There were 354 participants assigned either to the tai chi group, who received eight weeks of lessons, or to a control group.

Results in the tai chi group included significant pain relief, reduced stiffness and better ability to manage daily living.  They reported a greater sense of wellness and improved balance.

The tai chi for arthritis program has been designed by Dr Lam specifically for this population.

“Tai chi was originally a martial art, so you need a program designed for older people, and instructors who take care of people,” he says. “The movements are modified and safe.”

With only 12 moves, it can be learned quickly. The program focuses on good posture, abdominal breathing, gentle movements and relaxation.

“When people are using abdominal breathing they are more relaxed and feel better, their pain improves,” Dr Lam says. “Tai chi gently exercises all parts of the body, makes the fluid circulate in the joints and stretches the joints gently.

The program can be performed in a group with a trained instructor or at home following a DVD. A seated version is available for the more frail or debilitated.  Dr Lam started tai chi to manage his arthritis and discovered many additional benefits.

 “All I did was tai chi and my fitness level improved. I’m really fit for my age. I feel really well, especially considering I’ve had arthritis for more than 50 years,” he says.  “I attribute it all to tai chi.”

 Sophia Auld has been a physiotherapist for 26 years and now lives and works in Cooroy. Email sophia.auld@gmail.com or call 0418 721 856.