Professors research benefits of Tai Chi on degenerative diseases
When: September 2011
Anthony Carimi, 85, was accustomed to doing everything independently — until he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years ago.
Now his wife Ona has stepped in. And so has Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art that uses the mind to focus on slow body movements.
As Carimi practices the art that emulates a graceful dance, he fights the progression of his debilitating disease.
This is part of two University professors’ research on Tai Chi’s effects on degenerative diseases.
Li Li and Jan Hondzinski, professor and associate professor of kinesiology, have each been researching the effects of Tai Chi on people with peripheral neuropathy, a disease that affects nerve endings, and Parkinson’s disease.
The research projects use a simplified version of Tai Chi, an exercise that benefits the body without stressing it, Hondzinski said.
The projects are primarily funded by the O’Reilly Family Foundation and Origin BioMed Inc., said Li and Hondzinski.
Peripheral neuropathy can cause pain, numbness, trouble balancing and limited movement.
It usually starts in the big toes, Li said. The ailment affects the sensory nerves farthest from the spinal cord and gradually works toward it.
He said it takes years for the disease to progress, and there is no known medical cure.
“Psychologically, it’s just absolutely devastating,” Li said.
Li said the disease’s cause is usually unknown, but it can result from ailments such as diabetes, leprosy or alcoholism.
Though Li had studied balance and gait for almost 20 years, he did not begin to focus on peripheral neuropathy until spring 2004 when a friend was diagnosed.
Li said his friend couldn’t stand without a cane because his feet were numb, but he was still able to walk easily.
“After this conversation, my world was basically crumbling down,” he said.
Li said he later discovered a peripheral neuropathy support group and proposed the idea of trying Tai Chi as therapy.
The Tai Chi instructor is Yajun Zhuang, who came to the University from China. Li said he worked with Zhuang and set up a class at the University in summer 2004.
Participants use their feet, knees and hips to support themselves and shift their weight. As a result, people who were once dependent on family and friends have slowly gained independence, Li said.
“It’s good both physically and mentally,” said research participant Pris Ashworth, 63. “It’s relaxing in a mental kind of way.”
Ashworth said she does not have peripheral neuropathy but still participates in the project as part of the control group. She joined the project in 2006.
Approximately 25 study participants have peripheral neuropathy, while seven to eight don’t have the disease. He said the project has a wait list of about 200 people.
All the participants began the study doing seated Tai Chi, but they have progressed to doing the moves while standing, Zhuang said.
Betty Cook, an 83-year-old participant, said she’s noticed all the participants have gained balance and control.
The effects of Tai Chi extend further than peripheral neuropathy.
Hondzinski and assistant professor of kinesiology Arend Van Gemmert are researching the effects of Tai Chi on people with Parkinson’s.
Hondzinski said Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease that affects a part of the central nervous system that controls movement. Its cause is unknown.
It isn’t fatal, but complications like trouble swallowing can be.
She said people’s systems become slower over time, and typical symptoms include muscle rigidity and hand tremors.
Hondzinski’s research examines fine motor control, which involves hand movement, and gross motor control, which involves movement of the rest of the body.
Hondzinski said she started studying the effects of Tai Chi on Parkinson’s when a graduate student approached her with the idea. The research began two years ago, and Zhuang teaches a Tai Chi class for Parkinson’s research, as well.
She said people with Parkinson’s have trouble switching movements, and Tai Chi is beneficial because it doesn’t stress the body or cause joint damage.
Hondzinski said the class has helped participants walk, sit and stand and improved their fine motor skills.