Tai chi for arthritis is a therapeutic approach that adapts traditional tai chi movements to address the unique needs of individuals with arthritis.

Tai chi combines gentle, flowing movements, deep breathing, and mindfulness techniques to help reduce pain, increase flexibility, and improve balance and overall physical function.

This article discusses how tai chi may benefit people with arthritis, what newcomers can expect, and tips for getting started.

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Tai chi for arthritis is a therapeutic approach that utilizes the ancient Chinese practice of tai chi to relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life for people with arthritis.

This gentle and low impact practice focuses on slow, flowing movements and deep breathing techniques. It aims to enhance flexibility, strength, and balance while reducing the pain and stiffness arthritis causes.

Tai chi practitioners may modify the exercises to accommodate individual needs and limitations, making the practice particularly beneficial for people with arthritis.

Practicing tai chi for arthritis may help people by:

  • increasing flexibility with active range-of-motion and stretching exercises
  • strengthening muscles
  • reducing pain and stiffness
  • improving body awareness, balance, and coordination
  • relieving stress

Still, tai chi may help some types of arthritis more than others.

For example, the American College of Rheumatology recommends movement-based mind-body exercises, including those from tai chi, qi gong, and yoga, as therapeutic approaches for people with osteoarthritis, listing tai chi as a “strongly recommended” for those with osteoarthritis in the hips or knees.

Additionally, a 2021 study found that performing four tai chi movements in particular — Wave Hands Like Clouds, Diagonal Flying, Brush Knee and Twist Step, and Repulse Monkey — utilizes a wide range of motions in the lower limbs, provides a slow increase in joint loading, and engages strong muscle activity.

Yet, a 2023 research review on the effects of tai chi on physical function and safety in people with rheumatoid arthritis found that while it is typically safe for people with rheumatoid arthritis to practice tai chi, the approach is unlikely to improve their physical function or provide pain relief. However, the review authors noted that more research is necessary.

Read more about the health benefits of tai chi.

Someone interested in tai chi for arthritis does not have to subscribe to a specific belief system to benefit from the approach.

However, to understand the principles of tai chi, it does help to understand that tai chi is a moving meditation for many people. It combines slow, gentle, and fluid exercises with deep, concentrated breathing. Tai chi practitioners believe that practicing the art helps ease the inner energy flow and maintain the balance between yin and yang.

That said, tai chi principles exist to help a person mentally and physically align themselves to achieve those goals.

Order and phrasing may vary by source or instructor, but generally, a person practicing tai chi will focus on:

  • straightening their head and relaxing their neck
  • slightly moving their chest inward and their upper back outward
  • relaxing their waist
  • identifying the “full” and “empty,” or yin and yang, of where their weight lies
  • dropping their shoulders and elbows while maintaining a straight posture
  • sinking energy, or qi, to the lower abdomen
  • allowing their mind, and not power or strength, to govern their body
  • creating unity of the upper and lower body
  • maintaining continuous movement without interruption
  • seeking stillness in movement

Tai chi instructors guide their students in performing or applying these principles.

People interested in starting tai chi to help with arthritis may wish to consider discussing any special considerations or precautions with their doctor.

Once they get the go-ahead, they can talk with a few instructors and ask about observing a class. This can allow them to ask questions about tai chi and the class and observe the instructor’s style and the overall class dynamic.

People can consider both in-person and online classes. Depending on their schedules and personal preferences, having multiple options might help them create a more consistent practice.

Dr. Paul Lam, director of the Tai Chi for Health Institute, recommends people practice tai chi for at least 3 months to allow their bodies to get used to the movements and start experiencing benefits. However, the frequency will likely depend on individual preferences, daily schedules, and personal goals.

A few ways a person might find their right frequency include:

  • starting slowly with short sessions before building up
  • setting a minimum number of days to practice each week
  • listening to their bodies so they might avoid injuries and setbacks
  • staying consistent with their practice

Ultimately, the aim is to find a frequency that works for them and their goals.

Read about the 9 best exercises for rheumatoid arthritis pain.

While many schools and programs focus on practicing tai chi for arthritis, Lam’s Tai Chi for Health Institute may be the most recognizable. This is a nonprofit organization based in Australia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Council on Aging (NCA) recognize the institute’s Tai Chi for Arthritis program as an arthritis-appropriate, evidenced-based intervention.

Lam also helped develop the NCA’s Tai Chi for Arthritis and Fall Prevention Program, which is the same program, but it emphasizes fall prevention. This is a national program that is accessible in many communities.

The Tai Chi for Health Institute website has a global directory of instructors that people can search by location. People could also join tai chi-related groups on social media platforms or community forums.

Other ways people can find a tai chi class or instructor include:

  • contacting their area’s parks and recreation department
  • checking community events calendars
  • looking for classes at fitness centers, yoga studios, and martial arts studios
  • asking for referrals from their doctors, friends, and support group members

Lam’s Tai Chi for Arthritis program is available online for free. Click on the link below for parts 1 and 2.

Tai chi for arthritis adapts the tai chi principles to help people manage arthritis symptoms.

It incorporates gentle movements, deep breathing, and mindfulness techniques to improve joint flexibility, reduce pain, and enhance overall physical and mental well-being.

Tai chi is an accessible option for individuals with arthritis seeking a holistic approach to their condition.

People can join a local tai chi class or try Lam’s videos online at no cost.