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Arthritis, Meet Your Alternative

Traditional Chinese exercises and treatments provide a boost for the mind, soul and joints

Older Americans suffering from osteoarthritis may find help in an even older source: ancient Chinese healing treatments and exercise.

New studies by U.S. researchers are revealing the potential healing power of acupuncture, Tai Chi exercise and Qigong to reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis, which causes pain and reduced motion in the joints and spine. Experts say there is no current medicinal cure for osteoarthritis.

In a recent study published in the journal “Arthritis Care & Research,” Dr. Chenchen Wang and colleagues at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, recruited 40 subjects, averaging 65 years of age, suffering from knee osteoarthritis to participate in a 60-minute Tai Chi session, instructed by a Tai Chi master, twice weekly for 12 weeks. Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese mind–body exercise that enhances balance, strength and flexibility, and reduces pain, depression and anxiety in diverse patient populations with chronic conditions.

“It’s very exciting,” says Wang, who says the study showed that Tai Chi appeared to improve physical function and reduce pain and depression. “We found that Tai Chi does have a lot of benefits for the elderly for physical and mental conditions.”

In June 2008, Dr. Kevin Chen and fellow researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine, Baltimore, published a study in “Clinical Rheumatology” revealing the effectiveness of external Qigong therapy on people with knee osteoarthritis. External Qigong therapy is similar to therapeutic touch, in which the well-trained healer applies his/her Qi energy to the patient, Chen says. Chinese medicine considers knee arthritis to be caused by Qi blockage in the knee area.

Among the three groups treated for two weeks, Chen says “the placebo group had a 33-percent reduction in pain, the group by Healer 1 had a 35-percent reduction in pain, while the group by Healer 2 had a 55-percent reduction of pain after two weeks of treatment.” This led Chen to conclude that External QiGong Therapy might have a role in the treatment of osteoarthritis, depending upon the qualities of the healer.

Chinese acupuncture also has been studied as an aid in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis. Dr. Lixing Lao of the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Integrative Medicine has conducted three acupuncture studies from 1993 to 2004, from a small pilot study to a 570-patient clinical trial.

“Patients who were randomly assigned to the acupuncture treatment group had significant pain relief and function improvement ... compared to placebo/sham control,” Lao says.

Researchers realize more studies need to be done to incorporate Chinese exercise and healing practices into mainstream medicine in the United States, but they are seeing hopeful signs.

“Acupuncture is more accepted by the public than any time before,” Lao says, citing a recently published survey conducted by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. “There were 27.2 visits to acupuncturists per year per 1,000 persons in 1997, but in 2007, this number increased to 79.2 visits per year per 1,000 persons.”

Plus, Lao says, more medical acupuncturists are working in hospitals. “For example, in our University of Maryland School of Medicine, not only is acupuncture service provided by licensed acupuncturists in the center for integrative medicine but also by medical acupuncturists for their patients in the shock trauma center, cancer center and anesthesiology department.”

Alternative by the Numbers

Alternative medicine, once saddled with the label of being “hippie” and “fringe” is now one of the major trends in modern healing. According to the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.:

• One-third of all Americans are using some form of complementary or alternative medicine.

• More than 1 million Americans currently use acupuncture.

• More than $500 million per year is spent on acupuncture.

• Most of the acupuncture treatments are combined with conventional Western medicine.

• The number of acupuncture practitioners will double in three years.

• Indications for the use of acupuncture in medical practice cover a wide range of clinical conditions.

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