Modern Scientific Analysis of Medical Qigong

Is there any scientific analysis of the medical benefits of Qigong, which is a type of health/healing/martial arts exercise that has been practiced in China and other countries for at least two thousand years?  Recently an important book “Chinese Medical Qigong” [1] has just been published.  It provides a comprehensive summary on the theory, practice, clinical applications, and modern scientific research on Qigong.  This article reports on excerpts from this book in the area of modern scientific research on Qigong.  Readers can get an introduction to Qigong from an earlier article in my website “A Proposal to Perform Scientific/Medical Analysis of Qigong“.

The book reports on modern scientific research in control settings that could be repeated.  The results so far are very encouraging, showing positive evidence of physiological effects, psychological effects, biochemical and immunological effects, and physical effects.  These encouraging results definitely show that more research in this field at a larger scale is warranted, and show hints of an alternative medical approach that could complement and supplement the traditional western medical approach, and could help to slow down or even reverse the rapidly rising cost of healthcare.

This article reports excerpts from this book.  References to the original published literature can be found in the book.

  • Under normal waking conditions, the respiratory frequency of an adult averages 12-18 breaths per minute.  With Qigong practice, this frequency can be reduced to 3-4 breaths per minute.  For non-practitioners, reducing respiratory rate intentionally, even for a few minutes, will result in discomfort and chest distress.  This research indicates that Qigong practice can lead to deeper, longer, and slower breaths, and also induce lower oxygen consumption and a lower metabolic level.
  • The diaphragm is the principal muscle of respiration.  In practicing Qigong, often the traditional upper chest breathing is replaced by the lower abdominal breathing [2]. Observed by x-ray, it is found that the amplitude of the diaphragm’s movement is enlarged when one is practicing Qigong, for instance, the amplitude of diaphragm movement can be about 150 mm, which is 3-4 times as great as normal.  This is a reflection of an increase in the depth of respiration and a decrease in respiratory frequency.  Furthermore, larger diaphragm movement exerts a stronger massaging effect on the internal organs inside the abdominal cavity, thus stimulating gastrointestinal peristalsis (muscle contraction) and blood circulation.
  • For bronchial asthma patients, often used measurements are the forced respiratory gas flow rate capacity and respiratory tract impedance.  It was found that after Qigong practice, the respiratory tract impedance was reduced by almost a factor of two, and the forced respiratory gas flow rate capacity was also increased, providing evidence that Qigong for treatment of bronchial asthma was valid.
  • The effect of Qigong on hypertension (high blood pressure) started as early as 1959 and has continued to today.  For example, a 1962 study on 415 people with hypertension showed that 80.5% of the people practicing Qigong regularly and 17% of those practicing randomly had their blood pressure reduced, and they were able to maintain a stable blood pressure.
  • Qigong practice can lower the heart rate for those with abnormally high heart rate and increase the heart rate for those with abnormally low heart rate.  These results indicate that Qigong practice has dual-direction or balancing effect on cardiac output.
  • Several studies have shown that Qigong practice can decrease the cholesterol and triglyceride levels and increase the good cholesterol HDL level.  For example, a 1996 study found that for an elderly group after three months of Qigong practice, the total cholesterol content decreased 13.2 mg on average, the triglyceride content decreased 23.1 mg on average, and the HDL level increased 5.9 mg on average as compared with the control group
  • There are three common adjustments in Qigong practice.  The most important one, and probably the most difficult to understand, is to adjust (or regulate) the mind.  The other two are regulating the body and regulating the Qi.  Therefore, it is natural to see if any changes can be detected with Qigong practice via the electroencephalograph (EEG).  Several studies dating back to as early as 1959 have found that the alpha-wave amplitude increased while its frequency decreased, indicating moving toward tranquility during Qigong practice.
  • Recently studies using various psychological questionnaires such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory found that Qigong practitioners are significantly better in many psychological indicators such as interpersonal relations, depression, anxiety, hysteria.  Therefore, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Qigong therapy has been applied with modern psychological treatment.
  • One of the potential Qigong medical benefits is to use external Qi (EQ) from a Qigong healing expert on a person with some kind of illness.  To avoid the argument that any positive result may be due to psychological suggestion to the subject, scientific studies of this type so far are usually performed on laboratory animals.  A 1997 study investigated the anti-tumor effect of external Qi on transplanted hepatic cancer in mice.  The results showed that after exposure to EQ for 10 minutes every other day for a total of four sessions or 40 minutes total, the tumor growth rates in the Qigong group were about 70-80% as compared to the control group.  A close examination by electron microscope showed that the morphological alterations in the Qigong-treated mice included decreased cell volume of most cancer cells and nuclear swollen mitochondria with poorly organized mitochondrial cristae.  These results indicated that EQ of a well-trained Qigong healer could inhibit the tumor growth in mice.
  • Another study on EQ observed the change of the infrared intensity on the periphery of both the Qigong master and the human receiver during an episode of Qi emission.  It found that the infrared intensity increased at the palms and arms of both the master and the receiver when Qi was being emitted, and that the radiation at the palms of the master subsided, while that of the receiver lasted for some time and the temperature of the backs of hands and fingers of the master became higher after finishing Qi emission.  It also found that the parts where the receiver had sensations were the parts where increased infrared radiation intensity appeared.
  • Another study found that photon emission from the head and abdomen area of a proficient Qigong healer was many times higher than that of the ordinary person.
  • According to data both in China and other countries a Qigong practitioner could produce an exceptional biological electric current in the body when he/she was “manipulating Qi,” which consequently produced an exceptional biologic magnetic field.  Furthermore, some studies have found that a Qigong practitioner could turn around the needle of a compass for an angle of more than 180 degrees, and the magnetic power he gave off was received by the field intensity meter.

Although many of the above studies still involved relatively small populations (usually in the dozens or hundreds of people, instead of thousands of people), it seems that it is fair to draw a preliminary conclusion that there are medical benefits of Qigong that could be analyzed and confirmed scientifically.  More such research is of course needed, and we hope that more medical research centers and universities in the West with their sophisticated instrumentation and laboratories would engage in this kind of scientific research.  The benefits of such research could be ground breaking and highly rewarding.  It can lead to insights on phenomena which until recently the scientific community had usually looked upon with a skeptical eye.  Furthermore, it could have tremendous value for our health and the society at large.

We end this article with the closing paragraph in the book’s Chapter 3 “Modern Scientific Research on Qigong”:  “The study of Qigong effects or Qigong phenomena may be more complicated than any physical, biological, or physiological questions we have encountered so far because it involves both unknown bio-energy and human consciousness (intent).  It could be more difficult to study the physiological basis of EQ than it has been to determine the physiological basis of human consciousness.  Because an important aspect of Qigong is consciousness, we cannot study the effect of EQ without taking the healer’s intention or consciousness into consideration.  Traditional Western methods and theories in science and medicine might be insufficient to answer all questions in Qigong therapy and Qigong phenomena; we need new perspectives and new methodologies for the study of life phenomena like Qigong (Qian et al. 1989).”

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[1] “Chinese Medical Qigong”, Editor in Chief:  Tianjun Liu, O.M.D., and Associate Editor in Chief:  Kevin W. Chen, Ph.D., published by Singing Dragon, United Kingdom, 2010, 653 pages.  This book is the first English translation of the only official textbook of medical Qigong, now in its third edition, used in colleges and universities of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China.  This book is the result of more than 30 faculty members in a dozen colleges and universities of  TCM in China.

[2] For a discussion of lower abdominal breathing, see the earlier article “Breathing and Taijiquan” in my website.

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