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The cornerstone of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), qigong is based on the belief that the body contains a network of energy pathways through which vital energy-called qi in Chinese-circulates. By facilitating the movement of qi throughout the body, qigong-which literally means ‘working with the qi’-is thought to bring benefits that include tranquillity and self-awareness, as well as enhanced health and healing.

Although it’s been around for some 5000 years, scientists have started studying the practice of qigong and its medical potential only recently. What they’re finding is that this ancient healing technique may be a valuable weapon in the fight against many modern-day health problems, ranging from stress and high blood pressure to cancer and chronic pain.

Health benefits

There are two main types of qigong practice: internal and external. Internal qigong is the self-directed practice of mind-body-breathing integration techniques (including tai chi, which emphasizes outward movements) to cultivate the circulation of qi throughout the body. Traditionally, this form of qigong should be practised every day, either alone or in groups, to maintain health and prevent disease.

External qigong, however, requires the participation of a qigong master, who has been trained to transmit his or her own qi to influence the health of others. This form of qigong has similarities with other practitioner-delivered energy-medicine techniques such as reiki, and usually involves hand movements and focused attention to project qi into the recipient.

Most references to the practice of qigong refer to internal qigong, but both types have been the subject of scientific study-with promising results.

Internal qigong

Several studies suggest that internal qigong may be an effective strategy for reducing hypertension or high blood pressure. In a randomized, controlled trial of 88 patients with essential hypertension, a type of internal qigong called ‘Guolin’ was found to be just as effective as conventional exercise for lowering blood pressure. Both interventions significantly reduced blood-pressure values after 16 weeks, and heart rate, body weight, BMI (body mass index), waist circumference and total cholesterol were also decreased. Moreover, improvements were seen in general health, bodily pain, social functioning and depression (J Hum Hypertens, 2005; 19: 697-704).

More recently, internal qigong’s effects on blood pressure were reviewed in a meta-analysis (a pooled analysis) of nine separate studies involving over 900 people in total. The researchers concluded that self-practised qigong is better than no treatment for lowering blood pressure. Although it was not as effective as drug treatment in the review, its lack of adverse side-effects makes it an appealing alternative (J Altern Complement Med, 2008; 14: 27-37).

Other research shows that, combined with drug therapy for hypertension, qigong can reduce the drug dosages needed for blood-pressure maintenance, and can even cut the risk of stroke and death (J Altern Complement Med, 1999; 5: 383-9).

Internal qigong has also been used in cancer care, usually as a complementary therapy. In a study published in the Annals of Oncology, the official journal of the European Society for Medical Oncology, Australian researchers tested the effects of a 10-week programme of qigong-involving two supervised 90-minute sessions per week, as well as daily home practice for at least half an hour-in 162 patients with a range of cancers.

Their results showed that qigong significantly improved quality of life and mood compared with standard care. But, more important, practising qigong also appeared to reduce inflam-mation in the body, suggesting that the practice might have an impact on cancer itself. Indeed, several studies have indicated that chronic inflamma-tion is associated with cancer incidence, progression and survival (Ann Oncol, 2010; 21: 608-14).
There is also evidence showing that cancer patients who practise qigong have better survival rates than those using conventional methods alone (Integr Cancer Ther, 2002; 1: 345-70).

Another condition that responds well to internal qigong is tinnitus, a common hearing disorder that causes persistent ringing or buzzing in one or both ears. In 80 patients with tinnitus of at least three months’ duration, regular qigong practice (10 sessions over five weeks) dramatically reduced the severity of the condition, and the effects lasted for at least three months after stopping the qigong (J Psychosom Res, 2010; 69: 299-304).

Although most studies involve older adults, recent trials suggest that children may benefit from regular qigong, too. Indeed, twice-weekly sessions improved their self-reported wellbeing at school (specifically, psychological distress, stress and self-image), and also had positive effects on their behaviour (J Altern Complement Med, 2010; 16: 939-44; 2005; 11: 41-7).

External qigong

This practitioner-delivered form of qigong has mostly been studied as a treatment for chronic pain conditions such as osteoarthritis, low back pain and fibromyalgia-with encouraging results. An analysis of five randomized controlled trials of external qigong for pain found greater pain reductions in the qigong groups compared with the controls (J Pain, 2007; 8: 827-31).

Another review from the US rated external qigong as “possibly to prob-ably efficacious for treatment of chronic pain” (J Rehabil Res Dev, 2007; 44: 195-222).

However, the level of efficacy appears to be dependent on the quality of the healing master. One trial of 112 adults with osteoarthritis of the knee compared the effects of qigong administered by two different healers, and a sham healer as a control, on the patients’ joint pain and physical functioning. Although both qigong groups showed reduced pain and improved physical joint function, only one of the healer groups had results that were significantly better than that of the controls (Clin Rheumatol, 2008; 27: 1497-505). This suggests that the skill or experience of the healer could be
a determinant of how well external qigong works.

Besides reducing pain, external qigong also appears to have anticancer effects. Although the results may not apply to humans, a preliminary study in mice reported that external qigong was able to halt the growth of lymph-oma cells (J Altern Complement Med, 2002; 8: 615-21).

Even more intriguing, a form of external qigong known as ‘Qi of Yan Xin’ has been found to induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in human breast cancer cells (Cell Physiol Biochem, 2010; 25: 263-70). However, whether or not the technique will have similar anticancer effects in actual patients is not yet known, although case studies suggest that external qigong may be useful for alleviating certain symptoms, such as depression, pain, anxiety, fatigue and discomfort, in cancer patients (Complement Ther Clin Pract, 2005; 11: 211-3).

Qigong for everyone

Precisely how qigong works is unclear to the orthodox Western mind but, according to TCM, it’s all to do with ensuring the smooth flow of qi throughout the body. Any blockages of qi are sources of pain and disease (Clin Rheumatol, 2008; 27: 1497-505). From
a Western point of view, perhaps it’s qigong’s apparent ability to reduce stress and inflammation that makes it useful for a variety of conditions.

Whatever the mechanism, it appears that both the elderly and youngsters can benefit. The key is to find a qualified and experienced qigong master from whom you can either learn the practice or receive healing. Indeed, when qigong is practised inappropriately or in an unguided fashion, it could, in theory, cause adverse effects in some people, such as those who have underlying psychiatric disorders (Nat Med J, 2010; 2: 7-15; online at

Joanna Evans


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