The results were encouraging, as existing fibromyalgia treatments—including medication, sleep therapy, and aerobic exercise—fail to help many patients. “We need another approach,” says Dr. Wang.
Robert Shmerling, MD, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and the clinical chief of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, says that he often recommends alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and massage, to his fibromyalgia patients, although some of them are skeptical.
“I would certainly put tai chi on the list,” says Dr. Shmerling, who co-wrote an editorial that accompanies the study. “It’s difficult to take something that’s as safe as tai chi and show that it has this dramatic benefit and not be enthusiastic about it.”
The calming style of tai chi used in the study, known as Yang, may be especially effective for fibromyalgia patients, says Kim D. Jones, PhD, an associate professor at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Nursing, in Portland.
“It works more on the parasympathetic nervous system, …the part of the nervous system that helps us feel calm and relaxed,” says Jones, who studies Yang-style tai chi and yoga in fibromyalgia but wasn’t involved in the study.
Jones recommends that fibromyalgia patients find a well-trained instructor rather than trying tai chi on their own. She points out that learning tai chi in a group may have its own therapeutic benefits, by boosting confidence, for instance.
Many community centers offer affordable tai chi classes, but experienced teachers can be expensive and hard to come by. However, if future studies support the benefits of tai chi, insurance companies might start to cover the practice, Dr. Shmerling says.