In 2017 Patrick Dillon and I reported on Meta-Analysis of studies examining the benefits of Taiji and Qigong on Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is a progressive condition that primarily affects middle-age and older adults by reducing airflow and tolerance to activity. COPD is a major cause of disability and death across the globe. The authors systematically reviewed and re-crunched the numbers on 232 studies. This analysis suggested that individuals who participated in Taiji or Qigong for periods ranging from 6 to 48 weeks reaped benefits comparable to those seen with conventional treatments, including significant improvement in endurance and in two measures of lung function, as well as quality of life and increased sense of mastery. This meta-analysis strengthened claims that Taiji and Qigong are effective interventions for COPD. However, the authors also pointed out that many of the studies in their analysis were small and poor in quality, and they called for larger, higher quality studies to be conducted to strengthen conclusions.
Recently a group of researchers from Chiang Mai University Medical School in Chiang Mai Thailand assumed this charge, leading a randomized controlled trial with 50 participants to examine the effects of Taiji and Qigong on COPD. Findings from this recent study are summarized below, but more details can be found in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine.
Participants in this study were randomly assigned into two groups, a control group focused on health education and social support, and a Taiji-Qigong (TQG) group. Across a 12 week period, the TQG group met with instructors 3 times a week to learn and practice a modified eclectic Taiji curriculum promoted by the Tai Chi for Health Institute. During this time they also practiced twice a week on their own. After the initial 12 week training the TQG group continued to practice 3 times a week on their own for 12 more weeks (24 weeks total).
Researchers looked for change in participants’ functional endurance, lung function, shortness of breath (aka dyspnea) and quality of life at 6, 12 and 24 weeks. Despite the groups having similar baseline measures, by week 6 the TQG group showed significant improvements over the control group in functional endurance and dyspnea with measurable improvements in quality of life. All of these trajectories continued to improve through week 12 of the study with quality of life improvements measurable through week 24 of the study. While the TQG groups’ measures improved or stabilized across the duration of the study, sadly in just 24 weeks the measures in the control group, which received “usual care” worsened in functional endurance and lung function.
The findings of the study in Thailand not only corroborate the conclusions of the earlier meta-analysis, they also demonstrate how quickly benefits can be achieved with regular practice. The study’s results also have implications for Taiji and Qigong instructors. Rates of COPD are already as high as 12% for adults over 18 in some parts of the US and are expected to increase both in the US and internationally to the 3rd leading cause of death worldwide by 2030. Taiji and Qigong are emerging in the scientific literature as safe and effective ways to improve function, quality of life and manage the symptoms of COPD. Taiji and Qigong teachers will, no doubt, play an important role in providing access to these benefits via practice, still it is important to keep in mind that Taiji and Qigong instructors without clinical licensure should not offer to treat COPD or any physical or mental health condition in community members.
Although it is fine to educate people about the benefits that others receive as a result of practice, promising such results is not the purview of Taiji and Qigong coaches. For both ethical and legal reasons, Taiji and Qigong teachers without medical credentials must take care to honor the line between coach and clinician.
About the Author
Matthew Komelski teaches courses for the Department of Human Development, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Blacksburg, Virginia, where he recieved a Ph.D. in Human Development. He is an avid researcher in his teaching areas, and teaches a variety of martial arts classes. Matt was on the committee that planned the content areas for this newsletter 12 years ago. Reporting research regarding taiji and qigong was one of 3 research priorities identified. Matt has been the leading author in this area since the newsletter's inception.