Assistant Professor and physical therapist Ann Van de Winckel, PhD, MSPT, PT, is interested in the connection between the mind and the body to improve health and well-being in adults with chronic neurological diseases and in adults with chronic pain. “For more than 20 years, I have been intrigued about finding ways to improve health and healing and to combine complementary and integrative approaches such as mind and body practices and other healing methods with Western medicine,” she said.  “When I was doing my PhD in Physical Therapy, my mentor, Marc Noël, had healing abilities beyond anything I’ve ever seen or thought were physically possible. He taught me about numerous healing methods and explained how they worked on a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual level based on knowledge from various types of medicine, including traditional Chinese or Japanese.”

Effects are palpable
There are so many different ways to heal the body — bringing together the best of each of them will help create a new way of healing, Dr. Van de Winckel continued. “Even if we cannot yet measure all results objectively — because our Western assessment tools are not sensitive enough — the effects of such methods are palpable and can be felt because they work,” she said. “As my mentor told me, 'It is not about seeing different things; it's about seeing the same things differently.' It opened my mind to the possibilities in the world to help people heal. I also see this in study participants and how their lives and perceptions change.”

Dr. Ann Van de Winckel

Dr. Van de Winckel (pictured here) noted that there is a growing body of literature about the positive impact of mind and body practices like Tai Chi, Qigong, and Pilates on adults with conditions such as cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s, cancer, and diabetes. “When I looked at the research, study participants with conditions such as stroke and Parkinson’s disease who practiced Qigong improved their balance and had fewer falls, enhanced their quality of life, and had fewer issues with depression,” she said.

Building more evidence
Determined to build even more evidence for using these integrative mind and body practices, Dr. Van de Winckel’s Brain-Body-Mind Laboratory began a series of studies in 2019 focused on reducing chronic low back pain. Although the results haven’t yet been published, one of those studies has been completed. Thirty-six adults were enrolled and randomized into two groups: one would practice the 5 Element Qigong Healing movements of Spring Forest Qigong (slow, gentle, mindful movements combined with breathing), the other would do p.volve™ (whole body low-intensity exercises that focus on the pelvic floor and strengthening the core, which were specifically designed for people with low back pain). Both interventions were delivered through online videos so participants could practice the 41-minute sessions at least 3 times a week for 12 weeks, when it best fit their daily schedule.

“The results show that both groups had significant pain reduction,” said Dr. Van de Winckel. “After the intervention, many could do activities that they like to do but couldn’t because of their pain.” In addition, study participants experienced improvement in body awareness and strength, reduced their fearful avoidance of movement, and had less disability. “It’s not just about reducing pain,” Dr. Van de Winckel noted.

Spinal cord injury study
The lab began another study in 2021 that focuses on the use of Qigong for those who have neuropathic pain as a result of spinal cord injury (SCI). Study participants practice Qigong in their homes at least three times a week for a total of 12 weeks. “They can do the movements standing, sitting, or lying down, moving whatever they can,” Dr. Van de Winckel said. “We asked them to imagine they were performing the entire movement standing up and to imagine the ‘feeling’ of contacting the floor with the soles of their feet. We wanted them to focus on how that felt in their body.”

While performing the Qigong practice, participants were asked to associate positive memories with whatever they imagined standing on – perhaps the sand of a beach or the grass of a park or a lawn. Average results from the 13 participants who completed this section of the study indicated significant reduction both of their pain and of spasms. “Many people with SCI experience spasms — unpredictable whole-body or limb shaking,” said Dr. Van de Winckel. “It can be very painful and affects the quality of their lives because during a spasm, they cannot safely transfer or sit in a chair to work at the computer.”

Other goals set by this group of study participants, such as sleeping through the night, doing computer work while sitting in their wheelchair for a few hours without pain, or enjoying their favorite hobby, also showed significant improvement. “One person who hadn’t played piano in three years, was able to play half an hour every day after the study,” said Dr. Van de Winckel. (He is pictured above.)

Accessible, promising
The research team learned that Qigong is an accessible and promising way to reduce neuropathic pain and spasms and to help participants become more active. And this mind and body practice works for everyone. “When you go to a gym you might not always know which are the best exercises for you if you have low back pain. Additionally, access to gyms may be difficult and the equipment might not be adapted for those using manual or powered wheelchairs,” said Dr. Van de Winckel. “Offering an at-home intervention that participants can do when they want to seems to have really good results. In fact, people who get away from the practice say they can hardly wait to get back to it because they experienced so much benefit from it.”

Based on the results from the research that her lab is conducting, Dr. Van de Winckel recommends that Qigong be added to physical therapy regimens. “It has a whole-body benefit that helps improve mental and physical health and well-being,” she said. “Where I see the benefit for a physical therapist is that this is a practice that can be prescribed as an adjunct to regular physical therapy treatments to further improve symptoms at home, because patients can access the program at any time. Healing might occur faster as a result. It can also be implemented as a class in rehabilitation centers or in community centers such as the YMCA, which has the advantage of offering peer group support. With the current pandemic, group Zoom calls can be organized for those who like to practice at home but would still like the benefit of group support.”

There are many types of Qigong practices available, some free on YouTube, and many available through reliable websites with certified and experienced Qigong Masters. Qigong is widespread and benefits everyone, not just those with low back pain or SCI-related neuropathic pain, according to Dr. Van de Winckel. “You shouldn’t limit yourself if you can’t go to the gym,” she said. “Give yourself this gift.”

Learn more about Dr. Van de Winckel’s Brain-Body-Mind Laboratory.