DEAR DOCTOR K: I’ve heard that tai chi may help people with Parkinson’s disease. Could you please elaborate?
DEAR READER: Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects the brain. The earliest brain changes probably begin when someone is a young adult, but the symptoms of the disease usually don’t begin until much later in life.
Parkinson’s disease interferes with muscle control, leading to trembling; stiffness and inflexibility of the arms, legs, neck and trunk; loss of facial expression; trouble speaking clearly; trouble swallowing; and a variety of other symptoms. These changes interfere with the ability to carry out everyday activities.
Medications can help, but they sometimes have unwanted side effects. So finding treatments other than medications would be a valuable advance.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice of slow, graceful movements that flow smoothly from one pose to the next. During the choreographed moves, gradual shifts of weight from one foot to another combine with rotating the trunk and extending the limbs in a series of challenges that help to improve balance. Tai chi strengthens and stretches tight muscles. By enhancing balance and muscle strength, tai chi helps prevent falls and girds against physical decline.
But can patients with Parkinson’s disease reap these same benefits from tai chi? A study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine put that question to the test. A team from the Oregon Research Institute recruited 195 men and women with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. They were randomly assigned to twice-weekly sessions of either tai chi, strength-building exercises or stretching.
The results? After six months, Parkinson’s patients who did tai chi were stronger and had much better balance than patients in the other two groups. The tai chi group also had significantly fewer falls and slower rates of decline in overall motor control. Tai chi is a safe exercise.
I have a dear friend who has suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than 20 years. Sometimes, he just “froze”: He just couldn’t will himself to speak or move. His doctor suggested that when that happened he should try to break the freeze by shouting. It was easier to shout a word or two than to speak them, and it worked — but it startled folks around him.
So he had an inspired idea. He asked another mutual friend, a professional singer, to teach him to sing. Particularly he wanted to sing songs that required a lot of smooth modulations — some phrases sung softly, and others sung loudly and with passion. It seemed to reduce the number of times that he “froze.” It was a kind of vocal tai chi.
In his informative new book, “The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi,” my colleague Dr. Peter Wayne, with Mark Fuerst, explains the principles and benefits of tai chi. He also provides a detailed description of a tai chi program you can perform at home. Tai chi has plenty of health benefits, even for healthy people. You can learn more about this book on my website, AskDoctorK.com.
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.