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To treat pain, PTSD and other ills, Tennessee vets try tai chi

From News Medical - April 6, 2018

Every week in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Zibin Guo guides veterans in wheelchairs through slow-motion tai chi poses as a Bluetooth speaker plays soothing instrumental music.

Cloudy hands to the right, cloudy hands to the left, he tells them, referring to the move traditionally known as cloud hands. Now were going to open your arms, grab the wheels and 180-degree turn.

The participants swivel about-face and continue to the next pose. Guo modified the ancient Chinese martial art to work from a seated position. Even though many of those in his class dont rely on wheelchairs for mobility, using the mobile chairs makes it easier for them to get through a half-hour of movement.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has given $120,000 in grant money to Guo to spread his special wheelchair tai chi course. He started in Chattanooga, Tenn., and has expanded his classes to Murfreesboro.

This idea of going beyond prescriptionsand especially beyond opioid painkillershas been a key focus of the VA nationally.

In Tennessee, nearly a quarter of all VA patients with an active medical prescription were on opioids in 2012. That number has dropped to 15 percent, but thats still higher than in most other parts of the country.

According to a national survey from 2015, nearly every VA hospital now offers some kind of alternative health treatmentlike yoga, mindfulness and art therapy.

Guo is teaching people in a half-dozen VA hospitals in Florida, Texas, Utah and Arizona to use his version of tai chi. He believes the focus on breathing and mindfulnesspaired with manageable physical activitycan help ease a variety of ailments.

When you have a good amount of body harmony, people tend to engage in proactive life, he says, so that helps with all kinds of symptoms.

While wheelchair tai chi would provide activity for those whove lost some use of their legs, the exercise program is also geared toward helping vets who have mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Thomas Sales of Nashville, Tenn., recalls his most recent panic attack: Night before last, when we had the thunderstorm, he said. The thunder is a big trigger for some people.

Sales still has panic attacks regularly25 years after he fought in the first Gulf War with the Navy Special Warfare Command.

Youll find yourself flashing back to being out there with the fellas, and youll just kind of snap, he said. And I found myself, for some reason, thinking about doing the breathing techniques [from tai chi], and doing the heaven and earth, and then breathing deep and slow.

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