Back pain is one of the most common problems in the world, often caused by working too hard, or sometimes by not getting enough exercise. Studies show by the age of 65 more than two-thirds of the population have suffered from lower back pain at least once, and a great many suffer from it daily. Back pain can make almost everything else in life nearly impossible and can lead to a sedentary lifestyle and depression.
Tai chi master teacher David-Dorian Ross has taught for years a seated "Healthy Back" routine that can be practiced by anyone, at any age or fitness level. It allows students to gradually experience pain relief and develop flexibility. Seated tai chi and qigong exercises stretch and strengthen your back, taking pressure off the spine and muscles, so that you can ease into essential tai chi and qigong postures for alleviating pain and create better structural integrity. Sitting tai chi is actually an ancient practice going back centuries.
The smooth, flowing movements of tai chi are easy on the joints while simultaneously strengthening muscles and improving your whole body circulation. Body weight is constantly shifted from side to side whether practicing sitting or standing tai chi, improving abdominal strength, posture and spinal alignment. Coordinating breath with these movements provides muscular tension release and stress relief.
Studies Show Tai Chi Is Best for Back Pain
"In 2011, the first randomized controlled trial of tai chi as a treatment for back pain was published, comparing tai chi with usual care (any medical treatment and/or exercises prescribed for chronic back pain.) The researchers found that after 10 weeks of approximately two weekly 40-minute tai chi sessions, participants reported that tai chi reduced symptom annoyance and pain intensity and improved disability.
A 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis of 18 randomized controlled trials found that tai chi significantly reduced chronic pain associated with arthritis, lower back pain and osteoporosis. In 2017, the American College of Physicians published a clinical practice guideline on noninvasive treatments for acute, subacute, and chronic back pain. For those with chronic back pain, it strongly recommended non-pharmacologic therapies as a first-line treatment. Tai chi was included, along with traditional exercise and yoga, as a recommended treatment. The American College of Physicians noted that "low-quality evidence showed that tai chi had a moderate effect on pain and a small effect on function" and "low-quality evidence showed no reported harms or serious adverse events associated with tai chi." In contrast, they noted that evidence showed mild to moderate harms reported with yoga and traditional exercise, including muscle soreness, increased pain, and injury.
A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials evaluated the safety and benefits of mind-body exercise—including tai chi, yoga, and qigong—for treating chronic back pain. The researchers found that these modalities reduced pain intensity when compared with traditional strengthening/stretching exercises, core training, and physical therapy. And tai chi was significantly superior to yoga and even qigong in providing pain relief. In their analysis of safety, the researchers found that adverse events, including increased pain, reduced joint motion, herniated disc, and other injuries were reported in several studies of yoga. No safety issues were reported for tai chi in any study.
Another 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis evaluated tai chi effects on pain and disability from back pain. Researchers found that tai chi significantly reduced pain and improved functioning whether performed alone or with other therapies. Disability measures related to personal care, walking, standing, lifting, sleeping, and other physical functions all improved significantly.
A small 2020 randomized controlled trial specifically focused on tai chi's benefits in 57 adults aged 65 years or older with chronic back pain. Twelve weeks of tai chi sessions were compared with health education and usual care. The trial did not measure clinical outcomes, rather, it evaluated the feasibility of tai chi as a therapeutic intervention for older adults relative to commonly offered therapies. The researchers found that tai chi had high ongoing participation rates in comparison to health education sessions. Most participants attended classes, and then continued practicing on their own at home with video lessons. No safety issues were found to be associated with tai chi."
Because people enjoy tai chi, they are more likely to stick with a regular practice, and that is the key to really getting the healing benefits of the movements, whether standing or sitting.
The above is an original article by Master David-Dorian Ross author of DVD Tai Chi Fit: Healthy Back: Seated Workout, pub date March 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN 978-1-59439-694-6