Study Will Explore Benefits of Tai Chi, Meditation on MS Patients’ Physical Balance

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by Ana Pena PhD |

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A pilot study has been launched to assess the immediate and enduring benefits of tai chi and mindfulness meditation on the physical balance and mental wellness of people with multiple sclerosis (MS).

This community-based study — currently enrolling participants — is being conducted by the Motor Control Lab directed by Richard van Emmerik, PhD, professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst). The project was awarded a $54,972 one-year grant from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

While many MS symptoms vary from patient to patient, depending on the extent and location of the damage in the brain and spinal cord, difficulty in maintaining physical balance is a generalized complaint.

Several MS symptoms can have an effect on balance, including difficulties with coordination, tremor and muscle weakness, stiffness, or dizziness and vertigo.

“Mind-body interventions are beneficial as they train dynamic balance, such as transitioning between postures, turning, reaching, etc., in a manner similar to movements in daily life,” Julianna Averill, a doctoral student at van Emmerik’s lab, said in a press release.

Postural control and balance confidence is crucial to prevent patients’ falls and reduce their fear of falling. Finding strategies that help patients cope and overcome this limitation is crucial, Averill noted.

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Contrary to other studies, which focus on mental health benefits, this project will look mostly at the effects of mindfulness practice on physical balance. Tai chi also will be evaluated for its potential to improve patients’ balance, both while they are standing and as they move.

Participants will be randomly assigned to either eight weeks of free tai chi at YMAA Western Mass Tai Chi or mindfulness meditation classes at Downtown Mindfulness, in Hampshire County, Massachusetts.

Tai chi is a Chinese martial art that involves body stretching and slow, focused, flowing postures that keep the body in motion. Mindfulness meditation is based on mindfulness practices, including training on body scan meditation, and loving kindness meditation.

Participants will attend classes for 2.5 hours per week, where they will receive training to complete an additional 2.5 hours at home each week. At home, participants are asked to listen to meditation podcasts, or watch tai chi videos via a website that also tracks their activity.

“The participants will be trained, and they will be able to practice on their own,” Averill said.

Patients’ postural sway will be recorded by wearable sensors while performing distinct movements at the study start, at the end of all classes, and two weeks later.

On the same visits, participants will be surveyed to assess the frequency of falls, balance confidence, level of fatigue, and ability to cope and adapt.

“We’re taking a more holistic look, considering the whole person and overall quality of life,” Averill said.

The team plans to enroll 30 participants with mild-to-moderate MS symptoms, aged 21 to 70, and who are able to stand and move without assistance for 15 minutes.

For more information about the study and how to participate, contact Averill at [email protected]. A video of the program can be viewed below.

Dancing Doodle

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