OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Tai chi may help patients with Parkinson’s disease regain balance, reduce falls

02/16/2012

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A newly published study has found that tai chai, an ancient Chinese martial art, may help Parkinson’s disease patients not only regain strength and balance, but also reduce potentially life-threatening falls.

The study, conducted by researchers in Corvallis, Salem, Eugene and Portland, Oregon, is in the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

In the study, Parkinson’s patients were divided into three groups. One group participated in a resistance training program with weighted vests and weights, designed by Oregon State University researcher Gianni Maddalozzo. Another, which acted as the control group, did stretching classes. The third group took a modified tai chi class designed by Fuzhong Li, the lead author of the study. Li is with the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene and earned his doctorate in the exercise and sport science program at OSU.

Each group did a 60-minute class twice a week for 24 weeks. The patients in the tai chi group had significantly better balance, had better overall physical functioning and had a much lower incidence of falls. In fact, participants in the tai chi group had 67 percent fewer falls than those in the stretching group.

Maddalozzo, a coauthor on the study, said the reduced rate of falling is a significant finding.

“Falls can be detrimental, not only to those with Parkinson’s, but for many people including aging populations, diabetics, people with osteoporosis,” he said. “More than 30 percent of serious falls occur in the home, so what we tend to see is that people develop a serious fear of falling that leads to a more sedentary lifestyle, which is the opposite of what they should be doing.”

Parkinson’s is a disorder of the nervous system that affects motor control and movement. Patients affected by the disease have substantially impaired balance that can lead to serious if not deadly falls. Lead author Li practices tai chi, a martial art marked by slow, focused movements focused on meditation and relaxation.

 “Clinically, as an effective and safe exercise regimen, tai chi may be used as an add-on to existing physical therapy or rehabilitation programs as part of a balance training protocol or to address some of the key movement disorders in Parkinson’s,” Li said.

Maddalozzo said because tai chi has been shown to help Parkinson’s patients restore balance and regain strength, he believes it could be useful to a wide variety of people. Li agrees, saying that researchers have found positive results with older adults, including reducing falls by 47 to 55 percent.

“Tai chi has also shown to be beneficial in reducing pain in people with fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis, ameliorating sleep disturbances, and helping to decrease blood pressure,” he said. “Overall, accumulating evidence suggests that tai chi may be efficacious as a behavioral medicine approach for the prevention and rehabilitation of chronic diseases and dysfunctional mental and physical conditions commonly associated with advancing age.”

Researchers from the Oregon Medical Group, the PeaceHealth Medical Group–Oregon, Willamette University, BPM Physical Therapy Center, Oregon Health and Science University and Oregon Neurology Associates contributed to this study, which was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.