While many people take a “no pain, no gain” approach to exercise, that’s not always safe or effective for managing back and neck pain. That’s where tai chi comes in. This low-impact, slow moving form of exercise delivers results without the sweat and soreness. Though it’s gentle and meditative in nature, tai chi promotes strength, flexibility, and balance—the trifecta for a healthy spine.
If you have back or neck pain—or you’re looking for ways to prevent it in the first place—tai chi may be worth exploring. To help answer common questions and shed light on lesser-known facts about this ancient Chinese mind and body practice, we reached out to Dr. Paul Lam, director of the Tai Chi for Health Institute in Australia.
A: The most insightful finding in my research relating to tai chi involved the deep stabilizer muscles and the mental impact to back pain.
Ninety percent of people have back pain at some stage in their lives, and more than 60 percent of that is recurrent. I found out that almost all people with back pain, no matter what the cause, have weak stabilizer muscles. Research has shown that strong stabilizers will prevent back pain and hasten recovery.
Strengthening the back stabilizer muscles is very similar to tai chi training. The key is an upright posture, using abdominal breathing, and exercising the stabilizers through the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominus muscles. This is one of the major reasons why tai chi works so well for back pain.
The other insight I’ve found involves the mind. Anxiety makes pain worse. In many cases with the recurrent and chronic back pain, the cause of the pain could have gone, but the pain persists. Like a phantom pain, the mind’s ingrained habit continues to deliver pain signals to the brain. Tai chi trains the mind and body, making both stronger and integrated. It is one of the most effective tools to help with the mental aspects of back pain.
Q: What’s your best advice for someone who is apprehensive about starting tai chi?
A: It depends why they are apprehensive about starting tai chi. If people think tai chi is a martial art and might be too difficult to learn, I can assure them that it is safe, easy to learn, and proven effective. The other consideration is that people might think tai chi is too difficult to learn, but millions of people around the world have learned and benefited from it.
Q: How can people get the most out of tai chi?
A: I recommend people to practice tai chi for 30–40 minutes daily (it may be done in separate sittings) most days each week. You will gain significant improvement in your health and relief from back pain.
Q: Do you have any personal success stories that you can share about the benefits of tai chi for back pain?
A: Thousands! But to pick just one, I’ve included a letter below written by a woman named Amatullah from Saudi Arabia.
"In 2009, I had back pain for a long time. I tried many types of therapy, but nothing worked. My friend said, ‘Try tai chi, it is a gentle exercise.’ I refused at first because my back was sore, but eventually I tried it. It was really surprising to me how people from 35 to 80 years old could do the movements, when I couldn’t. I found some of them had been practicing for up to 35 years in order to maintain their health. I realized they were much fitter and more flexible than my parents, so I decided to learn it. Every day I practiced with my teacher in the park, in all weather. My back pain disappeared and has never come back."
Q: Are there tai chi resources you can recommend?
A: Yes, the Tai Chi for Health Institute website has many resources, including a list of certified instructors around the world.