A stroke can greatly affect a person's ability to move because of muscle weakness and imbalances. Stroke survivors often report this impaired movement leads to decreased quality of life. It can also increase the risk of falls. In fact, the National Stroke Association reports that about 40% of stroke survivors have serious falls within a year of having had a stroke. Serious falls cause more severe injuries and long term disability in addition to challenges that exist from stroke. Rehabilitation programs that include strengthening exercises and gentle stretching are often used to treat movement and balance problems. A variety of exercises may be used based on patient preference and needs but gentle exercise like Tai Chi are popular options. Tai chi uses slow, gentle movements and meditation practices such as deep breathing and awareness.
Researchers from Arizona wanted to examine the effects of tai chi on the physical function and quality of life of stroke survivors. The study, published in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, found that tai chi was associated with improved physical function and reduced falls in stroke survivors.
The randomized trial included 145 participants who were over 50 years old and had a stroke more than three months before the start of the trial and had mild to moderate disability. The participants were randomized to a tai chi group, a strength and range of movement exercise group, or standard care for 12 weeks. The tai chi and strength and range of movement groups attended a 1-hour class 3 times a week. The standard care group received written materials and resources for participating in community-based physical activity, as well as a weekly phone call to ask about their health status.
The trial tested the balance, walking speed, endurance, and lower body strength of participants before and after the randomized trial. Participants were also interviewed regarding the number of falls and near-fall experiences they had during the 12 weeks, quality of life, depressive symptoms, and sleep quality.
Data at the end of the trial found that:
A randomized control trial is considered a reliable form of research, but the differences found here were not incredibly strong. However, these results are similar to those found in an earlier study that suggested tai chi is an effective stroke therapy method for improved balance and quality of life. More research will be needed to confirm tai chi's benefits as a fall prevention strategy for stroke survivors.
The specific factors of individual's stroke and personal preferences need to be considered when designing a stroke rehabilitation program. Studies like this one show that less traditional rehabilitation methods may be effective options in your overall rehabilitation program. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about whether tai chi or another exercise program is right for you.
American Stroke Association
National Stroke Association
Taylor-Piliae RE, Hoke TM, et al. Effect of tai chi on physical function, fall rates, and quality of life among older stroke survivors. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2014 May;95(5):816-24.
Recovery. National Stroke Association website. Available at: http://www.stroke.org/site/PageServer?pagename=recov. Accessed May 13, 2014.
Recovery after stroke. National Stroke Association website. Available at: http://www.stroke.org/site/DocServer/NSAFactSheet_MovementandBalance_2012.pdf?docID=10641. Published 2006. Accessed May 13, 2014.
Tai chi: an introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/taichi/introduction.htm. Updated August 2010. Accessed May 13, 2014.
Last reviewed May 2014 by Michael Woods, MD