Public Health Report by: Eric L. Zielinski
Being both autoimmune and idiopathic in nature, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has confounded health care professionals for centuries. This painful disorder seems to wax and wane in unpredictable ways and frustrates even the most skilled physician. Subsequently, various treatments have been employed with little certainty to their efficacy and long-standing consequences.
Rheumatoid arthritis is so named after the rheumatoid factor (RF) autoantibody that is prevalent in up to 70 – 80 percent of people with RA. The RF blood test generally helps differentiate RA from other types of arthritic conditions like osteoarthritis (OA), psoriatic arthritic (PA), and ankylosing spondylitis (AS). Affecting more women than men, this painful disorder usually has an onset age between 25 and 55 years. Since it is an inflammatory process, people suffering from it will oftentimes experience swollen joints, limited range of motion, severe pain, and deformity due to joint destruction. Interestingly, it first attacks the hands and wrist, although it can eventually spread to most joints in the body.
According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) some of the epidemiological data is as follows:
RA is not only a significant health risk for millions of Americans, it is costly. The most recent data provided by the CDC reports that in 2003 the total economic burden of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions in the U.S. was 128 billion dollars, up from 86.2 billion dollars in 1997. In the same year, medical expenditures were 80.8 billion dollars, up from 51.1 billion in 1997. In addition, as RA has a strong association with depression, it is a main contributor to the 83 billion dollar burden depression has on the U.S. economy
Clearly, RA is big business, yet it does not have to be. If “alternative” therapies like massage therapy, chiropractic adjustments and, Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) were utilized, these numbers would dramatically decrease.
Bias against research designs that are not randomized control trials continues to limit treatment options for RA patients. Take, for instance, TCC. According to the highly respected Cochrane Library – the “gold standard” of peer-reviewed literature – “[TCC] is an ancient Chinese health-promoting martial art form that has been recognized in China as an effective arthritis therapy for centuries” (emphasis mine). Paradoxically, Tai Chi is still not recognized in the U.S. as a viable treatment option for arthritis patients. The answer to this conundrum, and more, can be seen through the eyes of medical research and management.
For example, in 2007 the world-renown journal Rheumatology published a systematic review of relevant data evaluating Tai Chi’s efficacy in managing RA. Although, positive benefits were reported on balance and strength, cardiovascular/respiratory function, flexibility, immune system, arthritis symptoms, muscular strength and psychological effects the researchers concluded the follow contradictory findings:
“There are few trials testing the effectiveness of Tai Chi in the management of RA. The studies that are available are of low methodological quality. Collectively this evidence is not convincing enough to suggest that tai chi is an effective treatment for RA. The value of Tai Chi for this indication therefore remains unproven. [Emphasis mine]”
Because many alternative therapies fail to produce random control trials in great numbers, the medical community has all but bastardized them. Consequently, instead of offering more natural approaches, physicians continue to treat RA patients with harmful and aggressive synthetic therapies such as are seen below.
The following list of common RA treatments comes from a 2012 U.S. Department of Health & Human Services report:
In addition, according to researchers, “Combination therapies serve an important role because treatment with a single DMARD often does not adequately control symptoms.” However, what is not being taken into account is that each person responds quite differently to a drug therapy cocktail. It is impossible, therefore, to predict how patients will respond and they oftentimes experience a wide variety of side effects. Take the following, for example:
Sadly, many of these drug therapies are experimental. Subsequently, scientists are not even aware of how they work and they have no idea of the long-term effects on the body. For instance, it has been reported that DMARDs “affect the immune system, although doctors do not know precisely how it works to improve rheumatoid conditions.” Needless to say – even though these therapies may temporarily relive some pain and discomfort associated with RA – they do not address the root cause, only address symptoms and come at a very high cost.
WebMD reports that, “Although there isn’t a cure for rheumatoid arthritis early, aggressive treatment has been shown to help prevent disability.” The medical community is correct: RA is completely incurable under typical medical management. What most do not know, however, is that it is very manageable and potentially curable using natural treatments utilizing nutrition, meditation, exercise, and other “alternative” therapies to our advantage. One very well documented approach to RA is Tai Chi.
Below is a sample of published studies highlighting TCC’s efficacy in the management and prevention of RA.
In response to the variety of benefits rheumatoid patients have received from Tai Chi, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society has implemented a special Tai Chi for Arthritis program based on Sun forms Tai Chi. The program includes warm-up, wind-down, Qigong, and 12 Sun styles Tai Chi movements. The positive results RA patients have experienced thus far has been outstanding and the program has already spread to several arthritis foundations globally.
In summary, scientific research has validated TCC’s efficacy in helping people manage the pain of RA. Furthermore, it has been proven that it can actually help reverse the disease by restoring proper range of motion in the joints, thereby creating the environment where the body’s innate healing capability can restore joint health. Its effect on stabilizing joints and maximizing the healing power of Qi needs to be investigated more, yet in the meantime it is safe to recommend Tai Chi for anyone suffering from RA.
By labeling TCC as “alternative,” the medical community has successfully place a stigma on it to be less effective, inferior, or even experimental. Subsequently, the U.S. has been very reluctant to utilize Tai Chi in its approach to rheumatoid arthritis. It would behove rheumatologists and RA patients alike to review the literature and consider implementing TCC in their RA treatment protocol.
British Journal of Sports Medicine
American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders
Journal of Korean Academy of Nursing
National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society