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Parkinson’s Disease & TAI CHI THERAPY

In a special to CNN, the Mayo Clinic’s mayoclinic.com reported that, “Parkinson's disease is progressive, meaning the signs and symptoms become worse over time. But although Parkinson's may eventually be disabling, the disease often progresses gradually, and most people have many years of productive living after a diagnosis.” This would indicate that there may be effective interventions that could perhaps slow the progress of the disease. When we get such a diagnosis, our first reaction might be to withdraw and give up. However, the old adage “use it or lose it” tells us that just the opposite is true.

If you have Parkinson’s, you’d likely be best off to use everything your body is, every which way, on a regular basis. Tai Chi movement’s gentle balance enhancing motions can obviously help the Parkinson’s patient by helping to reduce the gradual loss of balance that Parkinson’s sufferers often experience. However, there may be much more it offers. For example, Tai Chi movements rotate the human body in about 95% of the ways the body can move, when a long form is practiced. This is far beyond what other exercise offers, and in fact the closest would be several swimming strokes, which together would only rotate the body in about 65% of the ways it can move.

For Parkinson’s sufferers, or anyone for that matter, this would indicate that by “using” 95% of the body’s possible motion several times a week, the possibility of “losing” the ability to do so diminishes accordingly. This isn’t rocket science, but simple common sense. Yet, perhaps Parkinson’s patients have even more to gain from Tai Chi. A few years ago I taught several classes at local medical centers. I was continually frustrated because although I’d seen emerging reports that Tai Chi was beneficial to people with Parkinson’s Disease, or arthritis, or chronic hypertension, etc., even though the departments that specialized in those conditions were often just down the hall from my Tai Chi class . they might as well have been a million miles away. Because the physicians who ran those departments were either ignorant of or unwilling to refer their patients to the possibilities that Tai Chi offered their lives.

I remember though, that at one medical center a visionary neurologist began to refer patients with balance disorders to my Tai Chi classes and the result was very beneficial for his patients. Another physician actually wrote prescriptions for my Tai Chi classes to treat the chronic hypertension of his patients, who’d seen a significant drop in their blood pressure since beginning the classes weeks before. A clinical psychologist brought me in to teach Qigong (Chi Kung) meditation and Tai Chi to her patient group to enhance their sense of well being and provide effective stress management training. So, even back then some physicians were seeing the potential Tai Chi offered their clients, and even more are now, but the number of physicians who are still not informing their patients of Tai Chi’s direct therapeutic or at the least adjunct therapy benefits to their patient’s efforts to deal with their conditions and life, is increasingly indefensible in this day and age. Given the research that has exposed the many physical, mental, and emotional benefits Tai Chi offers, for physicians to not educate themselves on this and share their knowledge with each and every patient is tantamount to mal-practice. Health educators should likewise be making such therapies part of their medical student education programs as well. Tai Chi for Parkinson’s is being recommended increasingly by support groups and some progressive medical centers, but until everyone that has Parkinson’s knows about it, then our work at World Tai Chi & Qigong Day is not done, nor is the medical community’s. There are many obvious reasons everyone with Parkinson’s should be doing Tai Chi, but it’s the ones that are not yet obvious that may be the most intriguing. One obvious reason is that Tai Chi is the most powerful balance and coordination enhancing exercise known. In many studies at major universities Tai Chi was found to be TWICE as effective in reducing falls as the other balance enhancing exercises being studied.

For people with Parkinson’s, who often see their balance deteriorate as their condition progresses, it is unforgivable for them to not be informed of Tai Chi’s potential benefits at the earliest stage possible while their balance is still good. Now, regarding the less obvious reasons Tai Chi may benefit Parkinson’s patients. Both my wife and daughter, who co-taught a Tai Chi class together noticed that a young man with severe Parkinson’s tremors . completely lost his tremors once he joined the class in flowing through the Tai Chi movements in class. In another class I was teaching an older man with advanced Parkinson’s attended my classes for many months, and he always came in very slow with his walker. Once we began the Tai Chi movements he no longer used his walker, and had learned the entire long form of Tai Chi I taught, which was over 15 minutes of continuous changing forms. His form was unique and tailored for his limitations, but nonetheless a challenging set of exercises he was able to accomplish without the use of his walker. What do these anecdotal experiences portend for others with Parkinson’s? I don’t know, but there should be massive research dollars coming from the National Institutes of Health to find out.

Given the promise Tai Chi seems to offer people on so many profound physical, emotional, and mental fronts from preliminary research, the current total research money earmarked for complimentary and alternative medicine’s (CAM) is a mere pittance. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), now in its sixth year, supports more than 300 research projects and has an estimated budget of over $120 million for 2005 (up from $50 million in 1999). Total spending on CAM by all NIH institutes and centers is expanding as well, and is expected to reach $315 million by 2005. Sounds like a lot? However, $120 million is less than “one half of one percent” of the total NIH FY2005 budget. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges the NIH’s total annual budget for FY 2005 is $28.8 billion (http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/05pch8.htm).


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