Tai Chi Qigong for Injury Recovery
My Personal Experience, May 2016.
Over the last months I've been actively involved in recovering from a spine injury. It's been a difficult journey, to suddenly become so restricted with movement of any kind was not like me. I have a great physiotherapist who has been integral to my recovery so far. For the first month I was unable to move very much save for gentle exercises to relieve pressure off the spine. I am now able to stand and walk unaided, and albeit a very short distance, to walk unaided is liberating. I am now starting at the very beginning of my Tai Chi and qigong training once again, back to the foundation exercises and basics. All very slowly and softly, listening to what my body feels and needs.
My personal health journey is challenging, I live with Ehlers Danlos syndrome (EDS), which causes unpredictable and recurring joint, ligament, tendon and muscle injuries. These injuries often take longer than average to heal, and then may become chronic and persistent injuries. The lack of collagen in the DNA means there is a weakness throughout the cells with elasticity and cell regeneration. As someone who has been training Tai Chi and Qigong since 2006, I have faced many difficulties living with the degeneration of my physical body due to EDS. Read more here on EDS.
In this article I would like to explore the benefits of using Tai Chi and Qigong as restorative exercises to help during injury recovery.
Using Tai Chi and Qigong to Aid Recovery
Doing in a Qigong Way
I spend my day doing in a qigong way, that means my exercises and movements are done with an aligned posture, deep breathing and body awareness. From walking to the kitchen, making a drink, to pottering around the home, I try to move as much as possible in a safe and soft way. I have a number of physical restrictions, so I don't aim for perfection or what I used to be capable of in flexibility and mobility. My movements are mindful, considered and controlled. Pain is a fantastic diagnostic, it gives you instant feedback to respond to. By applying qigong to daily life, you can help reduce the sharp edges of pain that you reach through a misaligned posture.
Gentle Powerful Movements
Tai Chi and Qigong can be practiced by literally anyone of any ability, capability, health, weight, fitness level and/or age. There are no restrictions to these movements. They suit people who are recovering from injury, as they offer little impact, no jarring and can be performed as gently as needed. In times of recovery the physical body (and mind!) is in a state of stress, resources from the body are pooled to healing. It would be fruitless to add further stress on the body and over-do movement. Yet being sedentary can be counter-productive in healing and recovery. There is a happy medium! As a low stress exercise it is useful to use Tai Chi and Qigong in injury recovery as a way to approach exercise again, in a safe, slow and controlled way. It gives injured people a sense of achievement to be able to do something for themselves helps with their recovery, and importantly something that is not passive...... Tai Chi and Qigong require 100% involvement in what you are doing, it's empowering and rejuvenating. Whether lying down, sitting, standing, it is possible to perform some level of gentle movement.
I don't use the word rule as that implies something set in stone. Training Tai Chi and Qigong less than your absolute maximum is essential for all practitioners, not only those in injury recovery. This enables the movements to be performed with relaxation of the soft tissues, and help you avoid further injury, or physical stress from overdoing it. It also helps the body heal gently and gradually, whilst helping the rest of the body stay mobile and strong. Far from the push yourself mentality passed 100% that we have been conditioned with in the West. In general in Tai Chi and Qigong, we aim for 70-80%, but that does not account for everyday life. Choose the percentage based on your current baseline. Pull back training when needed, so as not to exhaust yourself nor drain your physical and mental resources further, and push to 80% when your mind and body are in a healthy state. Observe and pace accordingly.
Relaxing the mind and body is important throughout life, not only those in injury recovery. When in chronic and/or acute pain it can be easy to carry that tension over into the whole body, by tensing up and fighting the pain. Chronic muscular tension anywhere in the body uses our energy and causes fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, restricted movement, stress and anxiety amongst many side effects. It can be extremely difficult when in pain to let go of tension and to deal with the pain in a positive way. Softening, releasing, dropping and letting go of the whole physical body is an important part of injury recovery. How we respond to pain is an important awareness practice. With training over time, you can soften the edges of the pain experience.
For me deep breathing is an important part of managing chronic and acute pain. It's not a cure by any means, but by giving the body more oxygen with diaphragmatic breathing, and allowing the body to enter a parasympathetic state (automatic relaxation response), this gives the mind and body the best chance to help cope with pain. When in my greatest levels of spine and nerve pain I used deep breathing as a way to cope. I also used a tens machine, lots of sleep, very gentle rocking movements, gripping thriller novels and bed cuddles with the cat and dog.
In addition, when looking at movement, if the body is more relaxed through deep breathing techniques, and the gentle slow mindful movements of Tai Chi and Qigong, then healing is speeded up as tension decreases. That relaxation also keeps the uninjured areas of the body as they should be, and not in constant stress.
This is major in injury recovery. To rest up in most cases in my personal experience is counter-productive to overall health, wellbeing, psychology and physiology. For me during the last 2 months, even the slightest movement has been excruciating, that aside I have still tried to move as much as possible. I know that to aid healing of injury, blood needs to flow, and blood flows better when moving. Restricted blood flow hinders recovery from injury, blood can pool and become stagnant. With gentle movements, like Tai Chi and Qigong, the blood flows better, the heart beats a little faster and circulation increases. Yet, not to levels that would put a stress on blood pressure or jar the physical system.
Where possible I've moved gently all parts of the body, and not just the injured areas. This helps the oxygen reach every cell in the body. This increase of circulation also helps the body overall by activating the lymph system, the nervous system, the immune system, the digestive system, the respiratory system and so on. Most systems in the body respond to movement, we are meant to move! Movement is literally feeding the body with nutrients and oxygen to function and heal.
Read more about how we detox the body through movement. It is essential to start moving and exercising as soon as it is possible to, post injury or ill health. Our lymph system only works through muscular contraction, and expansion and compression of the body, acting as a pump for the lymph fluid. A free flowing lymph system is vital to draw waste and toxins out of the body.
Speed in Recovery
I spoke with my physio about my progress so far, and he is very pleased. We talked about what makes for good recovery; movement, posture, mindset, weight, nutrition. He said all too often patients do not take an active role in their recovery, whether physically or mentally. What I found interesting is that my speed of recovery is above average, and as I live with EDS this is unexpected, generally my healing is very poor. This unexpected progress is down to my previous lifestyle, all of the Tai Chi, qigong and meditation training I have done has led me to a point that recovery is happening quicker than average. Not just based on the movements I am doing now which are quite minimal, but my physical health and lifestyle before injury. I had not considered that perspective and felt uplifted when my physio discussed what would normally happen in this kind of spine injury case.
So in summary, get moving folks. Not only will you prevent injury by being physically strong and resilient, you will recover and heal quicker if you do unfortunately suffer injury, AND you will adapt to life changes with a more positive and healthy attitude.
Here are some useful resources on injury recovery using Tai Chi and Qigong:
- Tai Chi - Relieving a painful shoulder injury
- Why the RICE principle prevents sports injuries from healing
- Fort Bragg offers tai chi class to injured, wounded warriors to aid recovery
Please speak with your doctor prior to starting a new exercise programme. This article is for information purposes only and must not be taken as medical advice.