Tai chi may help Parkinson's patients

Last Updated: 2002-11-13 15:33:55 -0400 (Reuters Health)

MIAMI (Reuters Health) - While people with Parkinson's disease are very interested in using complementary and alternative medicine to treat their symptoms, there has been little study on whether such therapies can help them, Lyvonne Carreiro reported here at the Seventh International Congress of Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders.

But two small studies--one conducted by Carreiro and her colleagues--suggest that Tai Chi and the herb yohimbine, respectively, may help reduce falls in Parkinson's patients. People with this progressive neurological disorder suffer from tremor, muscle rigidity and movement problems.

Carreiro, a Parkinson's disease care coordinator at the University of Florida in Jacksonville, surveyed 75 patients at her center about their knowledge of complementary and alternative medicine.

"There is a lot of interest in alternative therapies for Parkinson's disease, but not enough information," she told Reuters Health. "Patients should let their physicians know if they're interested in such treatments."

Carreiro's team found that 54% of the respondents understood the definition of complementary and alternative medicine. Among the respondents, 23% mistakenly believed these treatments were part of most medical schools' coursework, and 51% believed herbs can be safely taken with medication. Most said they were interested in such therapies, but would only use them if prescribed by their medical doctor.

In the past year, 48% of the respondents had used these treatments. Among those who had, 45% had taken Tai Chi classes; 36% had used yoga and 27% had used acupuncture. Carreiro noted that several respondents had used multiple strategies and that 36% of respondents had used massage, 24% had practiced meditation, 45% used spiritual healing or prayer, and 15% used herbal therapies.

Noting that 80% of respondents believe that complementary and alternative medicine could improve their Parkinson's disease, Carreiro pointed out that there is a need for more well-controlled scientific studies to see if this belief is warranted.

In her own practice, she and her colleagues found that Tai Chi appeared to reduce the number of falls in Parkinson's patients. The investigators followed 30 patients with Parkinson's disease who were randomly assigned to a Tai Chi group or a "control" group. The people who evaluated their records of falls and stability scores did not know which patients were controls and which received Tai Chi lessons. Tai Chi patients had one-hour weekly Tai Chi classes for 12 consecutive weeks.

The Tai Chi patients were less likely than controls to have an increase in the severity of their Parkinson's disease and less likely to have a decline in motor function. The reduction in fall frequency was 18 times greater for the Tai Chi patients, said Carreiro. She told Reuters Health that people with Parkinson's disease who want to study Tai Chi must make sure the instructor is familiar with their condition and will accommodate their needs.

Other research on complementary and alternative medicine shows that some herbal or botanical therapies bear out their good reputations while others deliver less than adequately.

In a study on yohimbine, Dr. Ruth Djaldetti and colleagues at Rabin Medical Center, Beilinson Campus in Petach Tiqva, Israel, found that the use of yohimbine was associated with a 50% reduction in the number of falls. They treated 11 patients who either had Parkinson's disease or other parkinsonian syndromes.

Dr. M. G. Jabre and colleagues in Byblos, Lebanon, studied the use of fava beans as the only treatment in five patients who had not yet received any Parkinson's medication. Their rationale was that fava beans are chemically similar to levodopa, the mainstay medication in Parkinson's treatment. Although the investigators found no statistically significant improvement in the patients' conditions, two of the five were satisfied and wanted to continue with fava beans.

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