Qigong for Arthritic Pain Management
Part 2 in a 3-part series: Arthritis – Time to Take Control
Vivian Takafuji, CMT, PhD, Medical Qigong Therapist
Arthritis afflicts an estimated 50 million Americans and is the number one cause of disability today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form characterized by the deterioration of the articulating cartilage and increased bone growth at the surface. A trauma/injury, improper posture, or repetitive stress can often be the initial cause or contributing factors. OA can progressively affect any articulating joint, but is most commonly observed in the spine, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, hips, and ankles. Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammation of the soft tissues in the joint space (and internal organs, in some cases), which can result in pain, redness, limited mobility, and disfigurement. Regardless of the type, arthritis can be a painful condition, affecting a person’s mobility, mood, and quality of life.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) categorizes arthritis as a blockage of the flow of “vital energy” (or Qi), in a particular meridian (or meridians) that circulate the Qi in the body. Arthritis, regardless of the presented form, is categorized as part of the “Bi syndrome” of diseases in which stagnation of the blood, Qi, or fluids, is present. A licensed acupuncturist or TCM doctor should be consulted for a complete diagnosis (including face/tongue and pulse reading) for proper treatment.
Qigong (pronounced chee-kung) is an exercise-based branch of TCM that uses free-flowing movements of the body combined with conscious breathing and mindful-intent to restore the unblocked Qi flow in the affected area. Gentle movement of an arthritic joint can increase circulation of blood and nerve conduction through the area; increased awareness of the sensations felt during the exercise can be helpful to a personal, holistic understanding of the condition and how to better manage the pain.
A simple but dramatically effective Qigong exercise to gently loosen the entire length of the spine (and shoulders) is “Spinal Cord Breathing”. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and take several deep diaphragmatic breaths to calm yourself and prepare for the exercise. Bend the arms at the elbows with hands in loose fists and curled fingers facing away from your body. On the inhalation, bring the arms back to open the chest, allowing the eyes to slightly look up at the top of the inhalation – be careful not to arch your neck too far back (see Figure 1). On the exhalation, slowly drop the chin to the chest and draw the elbows in to hollow out the front of the chest, allowing the spine to curve and slightly tucking the tailbone under at the end of the exhalation (see Figure 2). Repeat the exercise for 3-5 minutes, trying to make the movements smoother, more continuous, and perfectly coordinated with the breath. Start slowly (don’t force it, especially in the arthritic area), and allow the muscles attached to the spine to gradually warm up before increasing the range of the movements. This exercise can be practiced daily to encourage fluid movement between the discs and vertebrae of the spine and gradually release blockages of Qi in the back.