Tai Chi reduces tension headache

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August 8, 2007  
Filed under Exercise, Pain

CM NEWS – Tai Chi, an ancient form of low-impact mind-body Chinese , has been proved to be effective in reducing tension headaches and improving perceptions of physical and mental health, a UCLA study finds. Tai Chi may be an -based alternative to pain killers and thus help cut pain killer addiction among many of us.

tai-chi11.gifWhat is Tai Chi? According to the researchers, Tai Chi is a form of traditional Chinese exercise that purports to improve health by changes in mental focus, breathing, coordination and relaxation. The goal of Tai Chi is to “rebalance” the body’s own healing capacity. Tai Chi has been practiced in China for hundreds of years and is now widely practiced throughout the world. It has been estimated that over 100 million people regularly practice Tai Chi in China alone.

Previous studies have shown that Tai Chi can help to improve balance and prevent falls in the elderly, improve musculoskeletal conditions, lower hypertension, enhance cardiovascular and respiratory function, improve mental health, and enhance endocrine and immune functioning.

What causes tension headaches? The researchers explain that the exact cause of TTH is not clear. Muscle tension or spasms of the head or scalp, neck, face or jaw have been thought to play a role. Tension headaches may also be the result of the same biochemical changes in the brain and impaired blood flow in the scalp and neck that lead to migraine headaches.

What is tension headache? A tension headache is the most common headache, and yet it’s not well understood. A tension headache generally produces a diffuse, usually mild to moderate pain over your head. Many people liken the feeling to having a tight band around their head. A tension headache may also cause pain in the back of your neck at the base of your skull.

Although headache pain sometimes can be severe, in most cases it’s not the result of an underlying disease. The vast majority of headaches are so-called primary headaches. Besides tension headaches, these include migraines and cluster headaches.

This study examined whether Tai Chi affects health-related quality-of-life and headache impact in an adult population suffering from tension-type headaches. 47 participants were randomly assigned to either a 15 week intervention program of Tai Chi instruction or a wait-list control group.

Health-related quality of life scores and headache status were recorded at 5, 10, and 15 weeks. Participants in the intervention group received bi-weekly sessions an hour in duration for 15 weeks. There were two cohorts for the intervention group to provide more flexibility to participants. Classes were taught at a local park distinct from the location of study assessment.

Subjects were taught the classical Yang style of Tai Chi short form. This 24 standardized movement form is the most widely practiced style of Tai Chi (4). An instructor with over 20 years of experience in Tai Chi instruction and practice administered sessions. Handouts were provided summarizing the Tai Chi movements, and a video of the form was provided to assist participants.

The results revealed that Tai Chi has statistically significant favourable effects on the following variables:

  • pain
  • energy/fatigue
  • social functioning
  • emotional well-being
  • the mental health summary score
  • headache status score

The researchers noted that Tai Chi offers several benefits over conventional pharmaceutical-based treatments.

1. Virtually all pain-killer treatment for tension headache include some risk of side effects or complications if used over a long period of time. For instance, the researchers say:

  • acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol and other pain medications) can cause liver toxicity
  • NSAIDS (such as ibuprofen and aspirin) can cause gastrointestinal symptoms and bleeding

As a result, exercise-based therapies such as Tai Chi are thus offering significant benefit to the patients.

2. Not all patients respond favourably to pain medications. Patients may find only partial relief for their symptoms, or may be completely unable to tolerate pharmaceutical intervention. To the extent that Tai Chi represents a viable alternative to medication, it provides a major addition to the arsenal of potential treatments.

3. Tai Chi may also help to control the cost of treatment because it requires only an initial period during which the patient receives training.

4. Tai Chi does more than alleviate pain or provide symptomatic relief; it benefits the quality of life scores. This may be because Tai Chi addresses an underlying cause of the pain associated with tension headaches, namely stress.

The pain associated with tension headaches may be caused by, or exacerbated by, muscle contractions caused by stress. Analgesics will only target the symptoms of stress. When medication stops, the pain may return because the underlying problem has not been adequately managed.

However, with its emphasis on relaxation, breathing, focus and coordination, Tai Chi seems to directly affect stress and tension that contribute to the pain associated with tension headaches. In addition to affecting this pain, Tai Chi may affect other symptoms that arise from stress such as tachycardia, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, etc., thus affecting the overall quality of life scores.

[eCAM 2007 4(1):107-113]


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