By Michelle Fletcher
The ancient art of Tai Ji may have a new application – Parkinson’s disease patients. Numerous studies in the past few years have demonstrated Tai Ji’s effectiveness in reducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s is a disease that affects nerve cells – called neurons – in the region of the brain controlling muscle movement. Those suffering from Parkinson’s disease may experience difficulty walking, muscle rigidity, trembling, and problems with coordination. While these symptoms generally develop in adults over age 50, a small percentage of patients are young adults and even children. The disease is progressive – meaning its symptoms become progressively worse over time.
Originally developed in China over 1,000 years ago, Tai Ji is an internal Chinese martial art practiced to increase health, balance, and longevity. Tai Ji’s roots begin in Taoism, the philosophical system evolved by Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, advocating a life of complete simplicity, naturalness and of noninterference with the course of natural events, in order to attain a happy existence in harmony with the Tao. Tai Ji is characterized by the use of leverage through the joints based on coordination and relaxation into the movements, rather than muscle tension. While also used in self-defense, Tai Ji has innumerable applications, including relieving the physical effects of stress on the body and mind, improving strength and flexibility, increasing internal circulation and promoting relaxation.
The world of medicine is looking towards non-traditional therapies to treat the various aspects of Parkinson’s disease and side effects of treatment. “There is a lot of interest in alternative therapies for Parkinson’s disease, but not enough information,” said Lyvonne Carreiro, a Parkinson’s disease care coordinator at the University of Florida in a 2002 Reuters article. “Patients should let their physicians know if they’re interested in such treatments.”
Clinical Studies Supporting Tai Ji’s Effectiveness for Parkinson’s
Due to her own patients’ requests, Carreiro led her own research of Tai Ji’s benefit upon Parkinson’s patients. Carreiro and her colleagues reported that Tai Ji appeared to reduce the number of falls in Parkinson’s patients. The Tai Ji patients – when contrasted with the control group which did not take Tai Ji classes after 12 weeks – were less likely to have an increase in the severity of their Parkinson’s disease and less likely to have a decline in motor function.” Further, Reuters reports that “The reduction in fall frequency was 18 times greater for the Tai Ji patients.”
Carreiro is not the only one to do research on this topic. A 2003 clinical study published in Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise reported similar findings. The study examined whether elderly Tai Ji practitioners have developed better knee joint proprioception and stranding balance control than control subjects. Participants in the study ranged from 69 to 72 years in age. “Tai Ji practitioners were found to have better knee joint proprioceptive acuity… They could lean further without losing stability… These results demonstrated that long-term Tai Ji practitioners had improved knee joint proprioception and expanded their limits of stability during weight shifting in stance.”
Tai Ji’s Impact on Balance and Stability in Elderly Subjects
In a separate study by these scientists, Tai Ji was proven to improve balance control in healthy elderly subjects. Forty-nine community-dwelling elderly subjects voluntarily participated in an intervention program of either supervised Tai Ji or general education for 90 minutes, six-times a week for eight weeks. Researchers witnessed incredible improvements of balance in elderly subjects after as little as four weeks. Their improved balance performance after four weeks was compared to that of experienced Tai Ji practitioners. “The above findings indicated that even four weeks of intensive Tai Ji training are sufficient to improve balance control in elderly subjects.”
Researchers at Youngstown State University in Ohio came to similar conclusions. In 2005, scientists described the effects of an eight-week Tai Ji class on two patients: one with Parkinson’s disease and the other with multiple symptom atrophy. After numerous tests, both patients demonstrated improved scores on the Activities-Specific Balance Confidence Scale and the Functional Reach Test. Both patients gained improved balance and balance awareness. “Tai Ji may be a viable option for improving balance in patients with mild Parkinsonism.”
Reuters. “Tai Chi May Help Parkinson’s Patients.” www.dotaichi.com/articles/taichimayhelpparkinson.htm Nov 13, 2002.
Tsang, W, W, N., and C. W. Y. Hui-Chan. Effects of Tai Chi on Joint Proprioception and Stability Limits in Elderly Subjects. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol 35, No. 12, pp. 1962-1971, 2003.
Tsang, W, W, N., and C. W. Y. Hui-Chan. Effects of 4- and 8-wk Intensive Tai Chi Training on Balance Control in the Elderly. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol 36, No. 4, pp. 648-657, 2004.
Tsang, W, W, N., and C. W. Y. Hui-Chan. pp. 652.
Venglar, M. Case Report: Tai Chi and Parkinsonism. Physiother Res Int. 2005;10(2):116-21.