The longer we live, the more likely we are to have years of ill health.
And current treatments for long-term ailments aren’t that effective – especially for pain.
Fibromyalgia is one important example, which featured in The British Medical Journal recently.
At present, aerobic exercise is the most commonly prescribed non-drug treatment.
Drug interventions, such as analgesics, seem to help a little in the short term but not much in the long term.
Many patients discontinue with drugs, either because they don’t work or because of unpleasant side effects.
Complex pain disorders are vulnerable to opioid misuse.
As with other chronic pain disorders, some patients with fibromyalgia use opioids to manage their pain, and that carries the risk of addiction.
So it’s good news that t’ai chi, an ancient discipline rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, seems to be as effective as, or better than, aerobic exercise for managing the condition.
Importantly, researchers found that patients were more likely to attend t’ai chi classes than aerobics.
“Patients may be more likely to enjoy, manage and continue to practise t’ai chi, perhaps because it involves gentle, low-impact movements with minimal side- effects,” Chenchen Wang, one of the researchers, writes in The BMJ.
Mind you, it’s been pointed out that t’ai chi doesn’t work for everyone and shouldn’t be used to deny other effective, but more costly, care.
Professor Chenchen Want, of Tufts University, Massachusetts, US, and director of complementary medicine, is in favour of t’ai chi for the pain of fibromyalgia as it integrates physical, psychosocial and behavioural elements.
It may be especially suited to tackling psychological and physical symptoms.
In the study on fibromyalgia, t’ai chi was as or more effective than aerobic exercise – and the longer the duration, the greater effect.
Despite the benefits of aerobic exercise as a core treatment for fibromyalgia, patients in the trial had difficulty continuing with the aerobic exercise programme.
Many participants missed classes, and attendance was lower than in the t’ai chi group.
In contrast, people from the t’ai chi group have continued to call the university office looking for t’ai chi training opportunities.
Because of this, researchers suggest patients may be more likely to enjoy, manage and continue to practise t’ai chi, perhaps because it involves gentle, low-impact movements with minimal side effects.
Isn’t it time to rethink what type of exercise is most effective for patients with fibromyalgia?
And deliver it?