Tai chi may reduce seniors' risk of back problems

Jul 22 2011

Prevention is the best medicine, and nowhere is this more important than when it comes to preventing back pain problems in aging individuals.

The extent of this health issue is emphasized by numerous statistics, including those cited by the National Institutes of Health, which estimates that up to 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Moreover, demographic trends, which suggest that the number of individuals older than 60 is expected to rise from nearly 57 million today to 92 million by 2030, may further exacerbate this problem.

Back pain is complex and may stem from any number of factors, from an underlying disease such as herniated disc or spinal stenosis, to age and even psychological problems, as stress and nervous tension have been shown to contribute to low back pain.

In view of this, would it not be great if there was a preventative method that might simultaneously mitigate some of these factors?

It turns out that there might be one. According to a review set to appear in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, practicing tai chi may help older people avoid falls and boost their psychological well-being. Tai chi is a Chinese martial art technique that combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements.

The researchers reviewed 35 relevant studies and found evidence that tai chi had these benefits thanks to its ability to improve posture and balance, which may help seniors avoid orthopedic injuries. Moreover, its meditative aspects appeared to positively impact practitioners' mental state, lowering their stress levels.

These conclusions appear to confirm what has already been observed in some parts of the U.S. For example, in 2008, researchers from the Oregon Research Institute (ORI) reported on a successful program implemented at senior community centers in Lane County, Oregon, where evidence-based tai chi instruction was used to reduce the rate of falls among residents.

"The U.S. population is aging rapidly and falls are a leading cause of mortality and morbidity among adults age 65 and older," said Fuzhong Li, PhD, a senior scientist at ORI, adding that these events cause a significant human, social and healthcare burden.

He concluded that "tai chi, as a proven fall intervention, may have much to offer in terms of reducing the public health burden of falls and the benefits accrued for prevention."

The results of the Oregon experiment were published in the American Journal of Public Health.