Tai chia is a mind-and-body practice that involves balance, strength and relaxation. (iStock)

After pain medicine and before joint replacement, physical therapy is one of the few options used to treat osteoarthritis of the knee.

Might a viable alternative be the gentle flowing movements of tai chi, a mind-and-body practice that originated in China and involves balance, strength and relaxation?

This study

The study involved 204 people (average age, 60) who had had knee osteoarthritis for eight years, on average, and were randomly assigned to one of two groups. People in one group participated in two 60-minute tai chi sessions twice a week for 12 weeks; the others attended two 30-minute physical therapy sessions twice a week for six weeks and then exercised at home in 30-minute sessions four times a week for six weeks.

All participants were allowed to continue medications they took routinely. Both groups, on average, showed comparable improvements in pain, stiffness and physical functioning, based on standardized rating scales, after 12 weeks. But a year later, improvements in depressive symptoms and overall quality of life were greater, on average, among those who practiced tai chi.

The researchers noted that “by integrating physical, psychosocial, emotional, spiritual and behavioral elements, tai chi may systematically promote health by its effect on both the body and mind.”

Who may be affected

People with knee osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis. It develops when the cartilage normally found between bones in the knee joint has worn away, leaving the bones to rub against each other and causing pain, swelling and restricted mobility. Osteoarthritis can occur with age because of normal wear and tear on the joint, and it can be caused by injury. Being overweight also can contribute.

Caveats

Some data came from the participants’ responses on questionnaires and rating scales.

Find this study

Online in Annals of Internal Medicine (annals.org; click on “Online First”).

Learn more

Information on osteoarthritis can be found at niams.nih.gov. Learn more about tai chi at health.harvard.edu.

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals.