This story (one of five we reviewed on this study) summarizes the findings of a recent study into the potential of benefits of tai chi for patients suffering from fibromyalgia. Though somewhat longer than all but one of the other stories under review, the story provides only a surface look into the merits of the research and the circumstances of the condition.
A study like this will have so many people reading the coverage that it is important for reporters to fully explain the study’s limitations and the context around the condition and its possible therapies.
The story does not mention costs.
The story does not attempt to quantify benefits. Readers are left to make their own assumptions about what percentage of fibromyalgia patients in the US might benefit from tai chi classes.
The story does not identify any possible harms. It is difficult to imagine that twice-weekly tai chi, like any other form of moderate exercise, would be harmful, but, at a minimum, the story could have reported upon the study’s adverse events registry. The NEJM authors clearly state: "No adverse events were noted during the study interventions." The study did not consider worse muscle soreness to be an adverse event so long as it resolved before 3 days’ time, so we don’t know how much of that occurred in either arm of the study. So why not drop in a line about the lack of adverse events? Wouldn’t a reader be interested that this exercise appears safe?
The results publicized here are based on a small study of 66 fibromyalgia patients who were followed for a few months. The story does not discuss any of the limitations associated with a study of this nature. In addition, the story does not include any information about the group of patients who received wellness education training followed by gentle stretching instead of tai chi, so there is no point of comparison.
The story cites a questionable statistic about the scope of problem. Citing the National Fibromyalgia Association, the story says there are approximately 10 million sufferers of the condition in the U.S. It would have been more appropriate to rely on a number from an disinterested government source. (The National Institutes of Health estimates 5 million as the disease prevalence among adults over 18.)
The story does cite the opinions of a researcher who wrote an accompanying article in the journal. More outside voices would have been a nice addition. This criterion is barely satisfactory.
Very brief mention is given to existing alternatives, such as exercise, sleep techniques and medication, but no discussion of the track record of how well the alternative methods work.
Readers are left to make their own assumptions about the availability of tai chi classes in their communities. More problematic is that the story does not provide any detail about the style or rigor of the tai chi classes (aside from the fact that the classes last an hour), making it difficult for a patient, or health care advisor, to make an informed decision as to how to proceed.
The story explains that doctors routinely recommend exercise as one method of treatment for fibromyalgia patients, but with limited success. So in that sense, the story does undercut some of the novelty of the study’s findings. An excellent question for the researchers would have been: What is it that potentially makes tai chi a better form of exercise for this condition?
The story is based on an study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine. The writer did contact the lead author and another researcher for quotes.