T’ai Chi & Stress Fractures

I want to thank two students (you know who you are) for alerting me to the fact that, in the months after starting T’ai Chi, they each suffered from a stress fracture in the foot. In at least one of the cases (…and maybe both; my memory is unclear here) the student felt sure that the cause was not T’ai Chi, but rather that it stemmed from an earlier, unrelated problem.

In all my years of teaching and practicing I’ve never heard of T’ai Chi causing a stress fracture, but I took these coincidental events as a sign that I’d better “bone up” on the topic. After all, T’ai Chi is designed to be a healing practice! Here’s what I learned:

According to NIH’s MedlinePlus service, a stress fracture is simply a “hairline crack in the bone that develops because of repeated or prolonged forces against the bone.” The Mayo Clinic expands upon this: “Stress fractures are caused by the repetitive application of force, often by overuse — such as repeatedly jumping up and down or running long distances. Stress fractures can also arise from normal use of a bone that's been weakened by a condition such as osteoporosis.” They go on to say, “you may be at risk if you do too much too soon.”

I think these statements offer a clue as to why T’ai Chi is such a healing exercise. The guiding principles tell us to never use force (on ourselves or others), to go gradually, and to stay well within our range of comfort. But, what can we do, beyond these things, to help reduce undue pressure on the feet? For this I asked Maggie Newman, who is one of the very most experienced teachers in the world (in her late 80’s and yes, still teaching!). Maggie suggested that if we fail to get our sits bones (ischial tuberosities) underneath us and if we fail to allow our pelvises to be active, that she would imagine this could result in becoming heavy on the feet.

Try this and see if it makes sense to you: stand up and take your sits bones out from underneath you by pushing them behind you (stick your butt out!). Can you feel an increase of pressure on your feet? You may find that your knees tend to lock as well-not good! Now, roll the bottom of your pelvis forward so that your “sits bones” are under you, and allow your knees to soften, you lower back to expand, your thighs to go forward and your pelvis to be active. Is it now possible to feel more stable and comfortable without feeling so heavy on your feet?

We may never know the mystery of what caused the stress fractures in the feet of these students, but I’m grateful to have been prompted to get a bit more informed on the subject. There are no guarantees in life, and none in T’ai Chi, either. But in my experience this practice has always given back far more than the small effort I put into it. When injury comes our way, as is likely to be the case at some point, it’s nice to know that this healing practice can support our recovery and help to prevent future injury.

So, we relax, we sink, we center, we align ourselves, we step empty, we shift, and we repeat. In the process (according to recent research), we are simultaneously improving flexibility, bone density, confidence, muscle strength, self-esteem, heart health, outlook, coordination,  rehabilitation rates, general well-being and quality of life. We are also reducing stress, blood pressure, B-type natriuretic protein (an indicator of heart failure), sleep problems, cholesterol, triglycerides, and C-reactive protein. It’s no wonder Harvard Medical School is about to release it’s own T’ai Chi book: “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi: 12 Weeks to a Healthy Body, Strong Heart, and Sharp Mind.”

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