Research shows that tai chi can be effective for managing the persistent low-back pain that many people experience.

“There is no treatment for persistent, non-specific, low back pain that takes the pain away completely. The best treatments at the moment reduce the pain,” according to study co-author Chris Maher, PhD, director of The George Institute for Global Health and a professor at the University of Sydney, in Australia. “In this study, people experienced a 25 percent reduction in their pain intensity if they completed tai chi [programs]. When we asked a sample if they felt this magnitude of reduction was worthwhile, most said, ‘Yes.’”

This is the first randomized, controlled trial aimed at investigating the effects of the ancient mind/body exercise on the reduction of pain and disability. Previous studies have found that low-back pain affects 80 percent of Americans at some point in their lives and is the fifth most common reason for all doctor visits in the U.S. In most cases, it goes away, but an estimated one-third of cases become chronic. Studies have shown that exercise is one of the more effective non-pharmacologic treatments.

The Australian study, published recently in Arthritis Care & Research, involved 160 participants ages 18 to 70. All had persistent low-back pain of an unspecified origin lasting at least three months. The researchers write this unspecified type of back pain is responsible for 90 to 95 percent of cases.

Seventy-eight study participants took part in 40-minute tai chi classes with a qualified teacher twice a week for eight weeks, and then once a week for two weeks. The other half of the study group continued with their normal fitness and health regimes.