Back Pain and Taiji

Taiji (also spelled Tai Chi), an ancient Chinese martial art, can be a very effective exercise to avoid and to relieve back pains. This article discusses why.

Low back pain is an extremely common problem. About 80% of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes. It is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days.

Very Common Problem: In a large survey, more than a quarter of adults reported experiencing low back pain during the past 3 months. [1] Most low back pains are acute or short term lasting a few days or a few weeks, and the problem often goes away by itself with time and self care. But about 20% of people with acute low back pain develop into chronic low back pain lasting 12 weeks or longer and often recurring.

According to Reference 1, the magnitude of the burden from low back pain has grown worse in recent years. In 1990, a study ranking the most burdensome conditions in the U.S. in terms of mortality or poor health as a result of disease put low back pain in sixth place; in 2010, low back pain jumped to third place, with only ischemic heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ranking higher.

Taiji Can Help Relieve and Avoid Low Back Pain: Taij, which is an ancient Chinese art that is good for self defense and also good for health, has turned out to be an effective exercise to relieve low back pain, as well as to avoid getting low back problems. A new Consumer Reports survey of more than 3,500 adults who’ve had back pain in the last three years confirms that Taiji helps provide relief. Nearly 90 percent of respondents who used Taiji (or yoga) for back pain found it helpful. In comparison, only 64 percent of people thought that the advice and treatment they got from a primary-care physician or orthopedic surgeon gave them relief. [2]

Why? There are three reasons why Taiji (including related stretching and Qigong exercises) can be effective for low back pain:

  1. Gives rise to better posture and balance
  2. Strengthens back muscles and stretches the spinal column structure
  3. Benefits from associated meditation aspects (relaxation and deep breathing) of Taiji.

We elaborate on each of these three reasons.

Gives Rise to Better Posture and Balance: One of the fundamental principles of Taiji is to keep the upper back of the body straight or almost straight. This means that the weight of the whole back is firmly supported by the pelvic structure and the legs and avoids putting any unnecessary stress on any part of your upper body. This is similar to the usual suggestion that when we sit, we should sit upright.

Another fundamental principle of Taiji is that we should have close to one-shoulder-width separation between the left foot and the right foot in the transverse direction (i.e., direction perpendicular to direction of motion). Then the center of gravity of your body will be between the two lines of support from your two feet. This gives rise to a very firm stance and better balance, and again avoids putting any unnecessary stress on your body. This is also why practicing Taiji can significantly reduce the probability of falling.

Strengthens Back Muscles and Stretches Spinal Column Structure: Many Taiji movements involve waist rotation. When you rotate the waist, you are strengthening the muscles surrounding your lower back spinal column. This means that when you are involved in doing various daily activities, such as turning your body, lifting an object, or bending down, your strengthened back muscles will result in less stress on your lower back spinal column. This minimizes the probability of causing a vertebrae disk to protrude and touching a nerve which will cause pain.

Waist rotation is integral to Taiji. You will find it in numerous forms, e.g., in Wild Horse Shakes Its Mane. Brush Knee and Step Forward, Grasp the Sparrow’s Tail, Single Whip, Wave Hands Like Cloud, Fair Lady Works the Shuttles.

By the way, waist rotation is also very important from a martial arts perspective. When you punch with your arm or kick with your foot, rotating the waist adds more power to your punch or kick. The power from your punch or kick no longer just comes from your arm or leg, because the rotation power will be added to the power of your punch or kick. This illustrates that what is good from a health perspective is usually also good from a martial arts perspective. Conversely, what is good from a martial arts perspective is usually also good from a health perspective.

Besides doing various Taiji forms, there are also many stretching or Qigong exercises that one also practices in a Taiji class. Some of these exercises stretch the spinal vertebra column. This gives rise to more space for the disk between vertebrae, and thus avoiding disk rupture or herniated disk. An example is Item #3 “Separating Heaven and Earth” in the Eight Silk Brocade Qigong exercise that we discussed in an earlier Taiji article in this website. [3]

Benefits from Associated Meditation Aspects (Relaxation and Deep Breathing) of Taiji: Taiji is also known as Meditation in Motion. There are two components to meditation: Relaxation and deep breathing. Relaxation is for both the body and mind. You relax your whole body. That is why the Taiji movements (especially for the Yang Style) are essentially all slow and soft. The mind is also relaxed, in the sense that your mind is focused only on the current exercise, and gets rid of all extraneous thoughts from your mind.

Deep breathing refers to Lower Abdominal Breathing (also called Dantian Breathing) [4] when you breathe more slowly and during your breathing your diaphragm moves up and down, and your abdomen (both front and back) moves outward and inward. Lower Abdominal Breathing allows you to take longer breaths and take in more oxygen. Because of the movement of the diaphragm and the expansion and contraction of your lower abdomen, Lower Abdominal Breathing provides some massaging of the organs inside your abdomen. Massaging is like doing exercises with your internal organs, thus strengthening them.

Relaxation and deep breathing can get rid of stress on your body and mind. The combination also allows the blood, air, and Qi (life force in traditional Chinese medicine) to circulate more freely in your blood vessels, energy meridians, muscles, and organs, thus invigorating your body. Deep breathing also can get rid of more of the toxins that are inside your blood, resulting in healthier organs. Thus the meditation aspects of Taiji can result in a healthier body, including your lower back.

Relaxation not only is good for your health, it is also good from a martial arts perspective. When you are relaxed, you can better sense your opponent’s motion and intent. At the same time, it will be more difficult for your opponent to sense your motion and intent. This provides an advantage in combat. This provides another illustration of the earlier statement that what is good for your health is also good for martial arts, and what is good for martial arts is also good for your health.

Summary: The ancient Chinese martial art Taiji is an effective exercise to relieve low back pain, as well as to avoid getting low back pain. Low back pain is such a common health problem and it can be very painful and debilitating. Taiji is an exercise that can be easily learned.

Although depending on the circumstances, Taiji may not be the best solution or may not even be a solution at all, it is often worth to be considered to be a potential solution.

However, many people, including Chinese Americans, will seek out more expensive and more invasive remedies which may not be as effective as Taiji. This may be due to an attitude that Western scientific methods and treatments must be better than ancient Chinese practices.

As a matter of fact, I also had that attitude until almost 30 years ago, when I damaged the tendons/ligaments in my left little finger while playing soccer, my own experience has opened up my eyes and mind. [5]

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[1] “Lower Back Pain Fact Sheet,” National Institute of Health:  https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Low-Back-Pain-Fact-Sheet.

[2] “Consider Tai Chi for Back Pain,” Teresa Carr, Consumer Reports, March 12, 2017:  https://www.consumerreports.org/back-pain/tai-chi-for-back-pain/.

[3] “A Set of Simple Time-Tested Health Exercises: The Eight Silk Brocade (八段錦)”:  http://www.dontow.com/2018/12/a-set-of-simple-time-tested-health-exercises-the-eight-silk-brocade-%e5%85%ab%e6%ae%b5%e9%8c%a6/.

[4] For more discussion of Lower Abdominal Breathing, see, e.g., “Breathing and Taijiquan”:  http://www.dontow.com/2007/02/breathing-and-taijiquan/.

[5] “Myth or Reality”:  http://www.dontow.com/2007/06/myth-or-reality/.

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