A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that tai chi may improve balance and prevent falls among people with Parkinson’s disease.

Today’s post is written by Dr. Peter Wayne, Director of Research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).  Dr. Wayne is also the author of The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi. The post was adapted from an article that appeared in the September 2013  issue of the Osher Center newsletter.

Parkinson’s disease affects more than one million Americans. This brain disorder interferes with muscle control, leading to trembling, stiffness, and inflexibility of the arms, legs, neck, and trunk; slowing or freezing of movement; and disruptions in balance, which can lead to harmful falls. These changes can greatly limit the ability of Parkinson’s patients to carry out everyday activities and compromise their quality of life.

Although there is no cure for Parkinson’s, the severity of symptoms can almost always be reduced. Treatment options for Parkinson’s disease may include medication, surgery, or other therapies, such as diet, exercise, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.

Tai chi, a balance-based exercise, is one non-pharmaceutical therapy which has been studied in patients with Parkinson’s disease. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that tai chi may improve balance and prevent falls among people with Parkinson’s disease.

The study looked at 195 men and women with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease. The patients were randomly assigned to twice-weekly sessions of tai chi, strength-building exercises, or stretching exercises.  After six months, those who participated in tai chi were stronger and had much better balance than patients in the other two groups. Among tai chi patients, balance was about two times better than those in the resistance-training group and four times better than those in the stretching group. The tai chi group also had significantly fewer falls and slower rates of decline in overall muscle control. In addition, tai chi was found to be safe for Parkinson’s disease patients, with little risk of causing harm.

Other smaller studies have reported that tai chi can improve quality of life for people with Parkinson’s disease and their support partners. These studies are significant because they suggest that tai chi can be used as an add-on to current physical therapies and medications in order to further ease some of the key problems faced by people with Parkinson’s disease.

Learn more about Parkinson’s disease and tai chi:

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