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Tai Chi: Improving Balance with Ancient Art

Tai Chi has been under the microscope of the American Academy of Otolaryngology (ear, nose, throat specialists) as a beneficial remedy for dizziness.

This ancient, Chinese art (some call it a martial art, but the fact is, there’s not much body contact) is made up of a series of slowly-executed moves. It’s a great exercise (you’ll get a workout without high-impact damage to knee and ankle joints), it can be combined with meditation (good for the spirit) and it looks like Tai Chi improves balance in those who experience dizziness as part of their daily routine.

The Vestibular System: Your Ears Aren’t Just About Hearing

You thought your hearing system was all about hearing. Well, it’s true. That hearing mechanism inside your skull converts sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain’s hearing center for processing. A genuine miracle of nature.

But you wouldn’t believe what else is going on inside those ear canals of yours. Holy cow. There’s another whole system called the vestibular system that’s a part of the hearing system.

The vestibular system is a series of minute canals, filled with fluid. The system is designed for one thing: to keep you oriented and moving in the right direction.

Damage to the vestibular system leads to dizziness, vertigo, regular nausea (imagine the room spinning for an hour at a time!), spatial disorientation and other symptoms that diminish quality of life – yours, perhaps?

Now, not all bouts of dizziness are tied to the vestibular system. Other causes of vertigo include: low blood pressure, head trauma (a concussion, for instance) and even a common cold when you experience that “stuffy head” feeling. Any of these, along with other illnesses and medications, can cause a malfunction in your balancing act, causing you to grab onto the door jamb before falling.

Each year, 13,000 people are killed through falls. You bet it’s a serious problem.

According to a study out of Johns Hopkins, 69 million people, over the age of 40, are up to 12 times more likely to experience dizziness due to a malfunction of the vestibular system caused by inner ear problems.

The study also revealed that those numbers rise with age. In other words, the older you get the more apt you are to have vestibular problems – problems with balance. In turn, a sudden bout of vertigo can send you tumbling, leading to serious injury and even death.

Vestibular Disorder and Treatments

Tai Chi for Vestibular Disorders
Tai Chi Balances the Unbalanced

Only a highly-trained, ear, nose and throat specialists and audiologist can provide the testing and treatment strategies folks with vestibular disorder require. Meds help in a lot of cases. Sometimes other treatments, such as physical therapy, are required. Balance is also a vision thing and a brain thing so some re-training through pre-scribed exercise is beneficial.

The vestibular specialist is likely to develop a program that includes eye and eye scan exercises, head movement exercises, and provide a series of tips for doing something as simple as standing up from a sitting position (blood flow from the brain may cause you to grab unto the arm of the chair).

Tai Chi has now shown promise in addressing the symptoms associated with vestibular disorders. According to a recently released study, this gentle, slow-moving art not only helps tone muscles and keep joints supple, it also helps in maintaining your balance longer.

Tai Chi is practiced in public in China, where large crowds gather in parks to perform the slow-moving series of moves. There’s the long-form and short-form Tai Chi regimen. Recommendation? Start with the short form. You’ll work up a sweat in the 20 minutes it takes to go through the moves of short-form Tai Chi.

The movements in Tai Chi flow, one into another, at a very calm, slow pace. Tai Chi is about smoothness of movement, not speed or “winning.” It’s an exercise intended to keep the outer and inner selves in balance – in harmony.

This recent academic paper on Tai Chi and vestibular disorders, presented at the 2009 American Academy of Otolayranology meeting in San Diego, clearly indicates that researchers believe Tai Chi improves coordination through relaxation rather than improved muscular coordination. But, think of that improved muscle coordination as a side benefit.

Tai Chi, practiced three to five times a week, will keep you in shape. It’ll also keep your feet more solidly on the ground.

Accessing Tai Chi

If you’re exploring Tai Chi, as an exercise or as a beneficial activity to address vestibular-caused dizziness, discuss it first with the physician and vestibular specialist managing your symptoms.

Many experts recommend beginning with the short form when first beginning the practice. There are many ways to learn how to flow from one position to another gracefully and in perfect balance.

Your specialist may recommend various books with “how-to” pictures in the library or on any on-line book outlet. Better still, they may have a favorite video/DVD that walks you through the moves to visualize how each move transitions. It’s good to see the smooth flow that an expert brings to the short-form Tai Chi series of moves.

You’ll also find lots of blogs and web sites dedicated to Tai Chi – resources that will provide step-by-step instructions and help create the Tai Chi “mindset” of peace and tranquility. It’s very soothing. And you’re getting a great work out.

It’s not hard. Anyone of any age can get started (again talk to your physician, first, of course), you can do it at home, you can do it on your schedule and you can do it in 20 minutes a clip.

The anecdotal benefits are known to millions of Chinese men and women of all ages. Now, there’s serious research that shows – Tai Chi brings balance back in to your life.

In more ways than one. This is one you gotta try.

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