Tai Chi Fails to Improve Pain and Quality of Life in Patients with Spinal Cord Disorders

Tai Chi Fails to Improve Pain and Quality of Life in Patients with Spinal Cord Disorders


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Tai chi is often described as “meditation in motion,” but it might well be called “medication in motion.” There is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems. And you can get started even if you aren’t in top shape or the best of health.” – Harvard Health


Spinal cord injury is devastating to the individual. It results in a permanent cutting off the muscles of the body from the central nervous system and as a result paralysis. The severity of the paralysis depends on the location of the injury of the spine with the higher the injury the more widespread the paralysis. Worldwide there are approximately 375,000 people with a spinal cord injury. In the U.S. there are 17,000 new cases of spinal cord injury each year. Spinal cord injuries not only produce paralysis but reduce productivity and life expectancy. Indeed, people with spinal cord injuries have lower rates of school enrollment and economic participation and are two to five times more likely to die prematurely.


Beyond, the devastating physical consequences of spinal cord injury are difficult psychological, behavioral, emotional, and social issues. The vast majority of patients experience chronic pain and a decreased quality of life. In addition, depression and anxiety disorders are common. Since, spinal cord injury is permanent, it is important to address the pain and psychosocial consequences of the injury that may be present throughout the lifetime. These can be changed and can help the victim engage in a happier and more productive life. Mindfulness training may help. It has shown to be effective in reducing chronic pain, treat depression and anxiety disorders, and improve quality of life following a variety of diseases. Tai Chi practice includes mindfulness training and also gentle physical exercise which may also be beneficial for patients with limited mobility. Hence, it would seem reasonable to examine the ability of Tai Chi practice in treating the psychological consequences of spinal cord injury.


In today’s Research News article “Seated Tai Chi to alleviate pain and improve quality of life in individuals with spinal cord disorder.” See summary below or view the full text of the study at:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5073764/, Shem and colleagues recruited participants with spinal cord injuries who had at least ability to move their arms and provided them with seated Tai Chi practice, once a week, for 90 minutes, for 12 weeks. They were strongly encouraged to practice at home with supplied videos. At the beginning and end of the 12-week training period they completed measures of pain, fatigue and depression. Throughout training, at the beginning and end of each weekly session they reported on their levels of pain, emotional well-being, physical, well-being, mental distraction, and spiritual connection.


Unfortunately, 60% of the participants dropped out for a variety of reasons before the completion of training, many due to the time required to commute to and attend training sessions. This seriously calls into question the tolerability of Tai Chi practice for patients with spinal cord injuries. Of those who completed training they reported after each session lower levels of pain and mental distraction, and increased levels of emotional well-being, physical, well-being, and spiritual connection. But, over the 12 weeks of training there was no significant improvements in pain, fatigue, or depression. Hence, there was some immediate benefits of Tai Chi practice, but no discernable long-term impact.


These are very disappointing findings that suggest that Tai Chi practice may not be the best treatment option for patients with spinal cord injuries. In a previous study, it was demonstrated that yoga practice improved the psychological well-being of for patients with spinal cord injuries and may be a better alternative treatment. Regardless, Tai Chi practice merits further study to determine if it can be of benefit to these patients when training is provided more conveniently.


“Tai chi—powerful enough for a warrior, so gentle your grandmother could practice it. If you suffer from neck and back pain or have just experienced a back injury, the low impact, yet restorative, movements tai chi is known for could be just the “moving meditation” you need to heal and strengthen your core.” – Toni Rivera


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ https://plus.google.com/106784388191201299496/posts and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Shem, K., Karasik, D., Carufel, P., Kao, M.-C., & Zheng, P. (2016). Seated Tai Chi to alleviate pain and improve quality of life in individuals with spinal cord disorder. The Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine, 39(3), 353–358. http://doi.org/10.1080/10790268.2016.1148895




Previous research studies have confirmed therapeutic physical and psychological benefits of Tai Chi for both the able-bodied and disabled populations. However, given the limited availability of seated Tai Chi, there have not been any studies to date that have examined the effectiveness of seated Tai Chi in individuals with spinal cord disorder (SCD). We designed a customized seated Tai Chi program to meet the need for improved exercise options for individuals with SCD.


Twenty-six participants were enrolled in a 12-week seated Tai Chi course consisting of weekly sessions. After each Tai Chi session, patients reported improved visual analog scale (VAS) monitoring pain (P) (3.18 v 2.93; P 1.63E-03), emotional sense of well-being (EWB) (2.61 vs 2.04; P 2.86E-07), mental distraction (MD) (3.13 v 2.29; P 9.36E-08), physical sense of well-being (PWB) (2.84 v 2.25; p 7.38E-08), and sense of spiritual connection (SC) (3.28 v 2.50; P 6.46E-08). In our limited follow-up of 9 participants who completed half of the sessions and the long term surveys after the 12-week course, there were no detectable differences in weekly P, EWB, MD, PWB, and SC before each session.

Conclusion and Clinical Relevance

Individuals with SCD demonstrated benefits in pain, emotional sense of well-being, mental distraction, physical sense of well-being, and sense of spiritual connection immediately after seated Tai Chi exercise sessions in our pilot study. More research in a larger population would be needed to study the long-term impact of seated Tai Chi.


One thought on “Tai Chi Fails to Improve Pain and Quality of Life in Patients with Spinal Cord Disorders

  1. It seems to me that if you practice tai-chi daily it will benefit you, if you want tai-chi to cure your sci to mean that you do it for a while and then your cured probably not gonna happen. I have a c7 incomplete sci and I practice tai-chi daily it helps with my pain and mobility/strength.

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