The clock starts to race after a stroke strikes—every minute counts. One million brain cells die every 30 seconds until blood flow is restored to the brain.
And the clock doesn’t stop once blood flow is re-established; now it’s time for rehabilitation, and timing is still critical.
The recommended timeframe to start stroke rehabilitation after a person suffers a stroke is no less than seven days. However, many stroke survivors hesitate to start their physical rehabilitation—and for two understandable reasons:
- They often lack physical stability due to the stroke and are thus afraid of falling.
- The stroke renders them unable to use their arms fully.
A new evidence-based stroke treatment – sitting tai chi – completely circumvents these obstacles, allowing stroke survivors to start their rehabilitation right away.
New research recently published in the journal Stroke found that the seated form of tai chi can help stroke survivors regain strength and balance and help relieve depression symptoms just as well as – or in some cases even better than – standard post-stroke exercises.
In this study, recent stroke patients were divided into two groups: Participants in one group completed a three-month seated tai chi stroke rehabilitation program while participants in the other group completed a standard stroke rehabilitation exercise program during the same time period.
After three months, the participants in the seated tai chi group had equal or greater improvement in hand and arm strength, shoulder range of motion, balance control, symptoms of depression and activities of daily living, compared to participants who completed the standard stroke rehab exercise program.
In other words, it seems that seated tai chi works the same or better when it comes to hand, arm and shoulder rehabilitation, and improving mental health and well-being when compared to standard stroke rehabilitation, which can place patients at risk for falls.
Why this matters
The longer the patient waits to begin rehab, the greater the severity and degree of damage to the brain. So, having a seated, highly accessible stroke rehabilitation option that works just as well or better as the traditional option – which requires standing, walking, cycling, even weightlifting – is a significant game-changer.
What is sitting tai chi?
Tai chi involves a series of slow movements of the hands, arms, neck, legs and core combined with deep breathing. Study investigators modified traditional ambulatory tai chi movements into ones that stroke survivors can do while sitting.
“We revised the tai chi movements for people who have weakness or partial limb paralysis,” explained Jie Zhao, PhD, lead study author. “It is tailored so that participants can move one arm with the help of the healthy arm.”
Sitting tai chi can potentially be considered a form of Dr. Zibin Guo’s 13 Postures Wheelchair Tai Chi, which provides a practical, convenient and empowering form of tai chi for people living with ambulatory limitations. Recognizing that not all movements in traditional tai chi are suited for people with ambulatory impairment, Dr. Guo selected 13 moves/postures according to five criteria:
- Moves suited for people with ambulatory impairment
- Moves that allow a large range of lower back/hip motion
- Moves that help promote upper body mobility and internal circulation
- Moves that combine both vertical and horizontal circles that improve and stimulate the rotation and range of the torso, waist, lower back, shoulders, arms and wrists to give the practitioner also a sense of expandable space
- Moves that help increase a sense of empowerment
“Sitting tai chi can be practiced in a chair or wheelchair and is very convenient since it can be done in your home,” Zhao said. “The program costs almost nothing to practice, and it doesn’t require any special equipment or travel time.”
How to do sitting tai chi at home or with an instructor
Stanford Division of Pain Medicine offers a variation of a sitting tai chi for rehabilitation (TCR) and offers this instructional sitting Tai Chi for Rehabilitation video on their YouTube channel.
Other sitting tai chi videos include:
If you’d like to find TCR instruction in person, search the Tai Chi for Health instructor database for a board-certified tai chi instructor near you. Also, many community centers and YMCA locations nationwide offer low-cost classes. You can find a program near you by visiting the American Tai Chi and Qigong Association’s website at americantaichi.net.
Regardless of whether you’re sitting or standing, recovering from a stroke or just participating as a curious practitioner, tai chi can be a lifelong practice with countless benefits. A form of “meditation in motion,” it can promote serenity and inner peace. The Mayo Clinic calls it a “gentle way to combat stress,” claiming that it helps stress and anxiety, increasing flexibility and balance while being easy on the joints and the connective tissue.
And for stroke recovery, sitting tai chi could be the perfect way to help your loved one get back on their feet.