Above: Tai chi instructor Brian Muccio demonstrates a movement with the help of a few VA employees who are also Veterans. The participants shown are not part of the ongoing Gulf War illness study. (Photo by Mackenzie Adams)
This article originally appeared in VA Research Currents.
VA researchers are studying whether an ancient Chinese mind-body therapy can help relieve the chronic pain, fatigue, and other symptoms experienced by thousands of Gulf War Veterans.
The VA Boston Healthcare System is hosting a randomized trial to test the effectiveness of tai chi in the context of Gulf War illness (GWI).
Practiced for centuries, tai chi was first developed as a form of self-defense. It has since evolved into a graceful form of exercise that is known to improve balance and coordination skills, with a series of slow and deliberate balletic body movements. The movements combine flowing postures with breathing, meditation, and stretching. Sometimes, peaceful instrumental music is played in the background as one performs the exercise.
Tai chi is often referred to as “meditation in motion.”
Dr. Barbara Niles, a research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD at VA Boston, is leading the trial. She’s also an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University. Her research focuses on promoting health-enhancing behaviors, such as exercise and mindfulness meditation, in traumatized people.
One of her long-time colleagues at VA Boston, Dr. Deanna Mori, is the co-principal investigator on the study.
Use of tai chi as a therapy at VA facilities has been on the rise, part of VA’s larger whole health approach. That concept is based on helping Veterans take charge of their health and well-being, in part, by encouraging them to participate in tai chi, yoga, and other mind-body therapies. However, evidence to support Veteran use of those programs is lacking, Niles says.
“There are no published randomized trials of tai chi for Gulf War illness, which is why we are doing our study,” she says. “But there are also no randomized trials of tai chi for PTSD, a much more common Veteran ailment. We’re interested in research in this area to provide a better evidence base that can inform VA providers and policymakers on decisions about the treatments that should be given to Veterans.”
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