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Wheel-chi for All

The Chinese martial arts in wheelchair

The Chinese martial arts in wheelchair

Tai Chi, originally developed for self-defense, has evolved into one of the most peaceful martial arts in the world. It involves slow movements of body, combining techniques of deep breathing and relaxation. Research studies have confirmed Tai Chi’s numerous health benefits, both physically and mentally, for the able-bodied population.

Through its hundreds years of history, Tai Chi has developed into several different styles. In 2006, Dr. Zibin Guo, a medical anthropologist and university professor, created a new form of Tai Chi, known as “Wheel-chi”. Participants practice this form of Tai Chi in a seated position, combining with Qi Gong, another ancient Chinese martial art with a holistic system of coordinated body posture, movement, breathing and meditation.

Dr. Zibin Guo, founder of Wheel-chi, doing training with his students. (Source: Blake Farmer/Nashville Public Radio)

Recently, Wheel-chi has been introduced by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to groups of veterans in Tennessee. It serves as one of the alternative health programs for veterans. The VA hopes alternative therapies like Wheel-chi help to reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as the use of powerful painkillers among veterans. Not all participants in the Wheel-chi class are wheelchair users but all of them use mobile chairs during the half-hour class for the optimal experience of Wheel-chi.

More research is yet to be done to find out the effect of Tai Chi on PTSD, pain control and drug addiction. However, the positive effects of Tai Chi (including seated Tai Chi) on individuals with chronic and spinal cord conditions have already been confirmed by several studies.

Effects on balance control and muscle strength

A group of researchers in Hong Kong conducted a research study to investigate the effects of sitting Tai Chi on muscle strength, balance control and quality of life among people with spinal cord injuries (SCI). 19 wheelchair users with SCI were invited to participate in either Tai Chi intervention or control group activities according to their preferences.

Tai Chi in seated position may improve handgrip strength of a SCI person.

Participants of Tai Chi intervention had a sitting Tai Chi training involving 90-minute sessions, twice a week for 12 weeks. After this period, dynamic sitting balance and handgrip strength of Tai Chi practitioners were found to have significantly been improved compared to those of control group.

Effects on pain relief and well-being

A group of researchers in the US has designed a customized seated Tai Chi program for individuals with spinal cord disorder (SCD).

26 participants were enrolled in the 12-week program, of which they met once a week for 90 minutes to learn and practice 20 Tai Chi movements. After each session, the participants assessed their well-being with a questionnaire. Results showed that people with SCD immediately after the Tai Chi sessions improved in pain, emotional sense of well-being, mental distraction, physical sense of well-being, and sense of spiritual connection.

Studies confirmed positive effects of Tai Chi to people with spinal cord and other chronic conditions, here fibromyalgia. (Source: The BMJ website)

Tai Chi for fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Recently, researchers from the US have conducted a study to compare the effectiveness of Tai Chi with aerobic exercise, which is a typical care, non-drug treatment for fibromyalgia. Effects were measured with the fibromyalgia impact questionnaire (FIQR) – a brief, self-administered questionnaire that measures physical functioning, work status, depression, anxiety, sleep, pain, stiffness, fatigue, and well-being.

The study found that the improvement in FIQR scores was greater for participants in the Tai Chi groups than for those receiving aerobic exercises (see image). In addition, the groups receiving Tai Chi treatment for 24 weeks showed greater improvements than those who had only 12 weeks of treatment. In other words, a longer duration of Tai Chi offered more benefits than a short one.

Practicing Tai Chi with SCI

Compared with other sports, Tai Chi certainly involves lower impact movements with minimal side effects. This makes it a popular sport to many, especially those with pain and mobility issues. Want to get an idea of how it’s like to practice this gentle martial arts in wheelchair? Here are two videos demonstrating Tai Chi in seated position:

If you are looking for a Wheel-chi instructor, you may visit this website: Jean-Baptiste, French residing in Berlin, is the first certified instructor in Europe to teach Dr. Guo’s Wheel-chi. He currently offers online Wheel-chi classes to those who are interested. You may find some demonstration videos on Jean-Baptiste’s YouTube channel.

Last but not least, like any other sport, you are highly recommended to consult your doctor before practicing. Constant evaluation with your doctor and instructor will also be helpful in maximizing the benefits and minimizing the harm of the sport to your health conditions.

Do you have any experience with Tai Chi? Which sport do you find most enjoyable and beneficial to practice in wheelchair?

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