By now you are probably tired of us telling you about how Tai Chi improves balance and prevents falls, but that’s because it’s very important. Read our blog post about falls for some of the sobering statistics. Well, I am about to tell you again, but this time I am talking about Tai Chi and Parkinson’s disease.
People who suffer from Parkinson’s disease have even worse balance problems than non-affected persons. The disease is a degenerative condition that affects how you move. It usually develops gradually and as it gets worse sufferers lose a lot of their ability to function and lead an independent life. There are over one million Parkinson’s patients in the United States. However, there is some hope. Studies have shown that Tai Chi improves balance and prevents falls among Parkinson’s patients. It may also lead to an improved quality of life for the patient and his or her support system.
One of the symptoms of Parkinson’s is impaired posture and balance. This may be a result of a myriad of Parkinson’s related issues such as tremors, stiffness, freezing of movement/rigid muscles and the loss of automatic movements. Parkinson’s is a brain disorder where the cells that produce dopamine are slowly destroyed. The nerves along the different parts of your body depend on dopamine to communicate with your brain so as to control the movements of your muscles. If your body produces less and less dopamine, your brain cannot communicate with and control your muscles. Medications may be useful to control some of the symptoms of the disease but not so much for the associated loss of balance and trouble walking.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that, “Tai chi training appears to reduce balance impairments in patients with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease, with additional benefits of improved functional capacity and reduced falls.” The study involved 195 participants who were randomly assigned to either a Tai Chi group, resistance training group or a stretching group. They all participated in their respective activity for 60 minutes a session, twice a week for 24 weeks. The researchers then measured their limits of stability (“rhythmic weight shifting, symmetric foot stepping, and controlled movements”) compared to a baseline measured at the beginning of the study, as well their gait, strength, functional reach and timed up-and-go tests.
Those who participated in Tai Chi had better limits of stability (they were able to lean backwards for a greater distance without stumbling or falling) and also controlled and directed their movements better. They also walked and could get up from a chair faster and had stronger legs. Also, they reported fewer falls! Additionally, “the effects of tai chi training were maintained at 3 months after the intervention. No serious adverse events were observed…indicating the safety and usefulness of this intervention for persons with Parkinson’s disease.”
There are some possible explanations for why Tai Chi effected these improvements. Many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s are a result of dyskinesia – the inability to or difficulty in performing voluntary movements. Perhaps “tai chi training reduced dyskinesia by increasing the ability of the participants to adopt effective sway strategies (at the ankle or hip), engage in controlled movements with improved balance control near the limit of stability, or both.” This would allow a person to reach forward for something or transition from standing to sitting and vice versa with a reduced chance of falling. Also, Parkinson’s patients exhibit “bradykinetic movements.” This is abnormally slow movement and the impaired ability to adjust your body. The Tai Chi participants had increased gait velocity which translated into “significant increases in stride length. These improvements in gait characteristics support the efficacy of tai chi in alleviating the bradykinetic movements associated with Parkinson’s disease.”
Furthermore, “the tai chi protocol stresses weight shifting and ankle sway to effectively move the person’s center of gravity toward the limits of stability, alternating between a narrow stance and a wide stance to continually change the base of support, increasing support-leg standing time and trailing-leg swing time, engaging rotational trunk movements with upright posture, and performing heel-to-toe (forward) and toe-to-heel (backward) stepping movements to strengthen dorsiflexion and plantar flexion. These inherent training features may have led to improved postural control and walking ability…” in the Tai Chi participants.
Therefore, if you have Parkinson’s or know someone who does, or are at risk for it, consider Tai Chi to alleviate the symptoms. Even if you do not hav Parkinson’s, but suffer from impaired balance due to age or something else, the mechanisms of Tai Chi that alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s may be helpful to you.