Background: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, inflammatory and systemic disease which affects the musculoskeletal system. Exercise programmes are reported to improve physical functioning in patients with RA. Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese martial art which combines slow and gentle movements with mental focus. The purpose of this study was to study in which way Tai Chi group exercise impacted on disease activity, physical function, health status and experience in RA patients, applying quantitative and qualitative methods.
Methods: Fifteen patients with RA (13 females, age 33-70 years) were recruited from a rheumatology department into a single group study. The patients were instructed in Tai Chi exercise twice weekly for 12 weeks. Assessments at baseline, 12 weeks, and 12 weeks follow-up were performed with a wide range of measures, including disease activity, self-reported health status, physical performance tests (Walking in Figure of Eight, Timed-Stands Test, and Shoulder Movement Impairment Scale). Qualitative data were obtained from a focus group interview conducted after completed intervention with taping and verbatim transcription. Review of the transcripts identified themes important to patients practicing Tai Chi.
Results: Within the group, Tai Chi practice lead to improved lower-limb muscle function at the end of intervention and at 12 weeks follow-up. Qualitative analyses showed that patients experienced improved physical condition, confidence in moving, balance and less pain during exercise and in daily life. Other experience included stress reduction, increased body awareness, confidence in moving and indicated that Tai Chi was a feasible exercise modality in RA.
Conclusions: Improved muscle function in lower limbs was also reflected when patient experiences with Tai Chi were studied in depth in this explorative study. The combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods shows that Tai Chi has beneficial effects on health not related to disease activity and standardised health status assessment, and may contribute to an understanding of how Tai Chi exerts its effects.
Trial registration: NCT00522054.