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Movement for life


LSU’s tai chi classes help mobility problems

The people in the tai chi class move so slowly, smoothly and deliberately, it looks like they’re moving  under water.

“Don’t think anything, except ‘chi’,” their instructor, Yajun “Thomas” Zhuang, tells them.

Chi, he explained before class, is “life force, life energy.”

Tai chi, a form of Chinese martial art, has become popular in the U.S. as exercise, with its slow, continuous movements.

But this class, held in a room of Hatcher Hall on the LSU campus, is different. 

Launched almost six years ago, it helps people with peripheral neuropathy, a disease that can cause tingling, pain and numbness in the feet, legs, hands and arms and make it difficult to balance and to walk.

Last semester, the program expanded to offer the free classes to another group of people who have difficulties with balance and walking — those with Parkinson’s disease.

The neurodegenerative brain disorder impacts the production of a chemical that helps with the control of body movements, according to several medical Web sites. 

“I would say, on the standpoint of balance and coordination overall, I think it’s been an improvement,” said Glen Meyers, 61, of the tai chi class he’s been in for several months at LSU.

Meyers learned he has Parkinson’s in 2007, after several months of medical testing.

He said medicine has been helpful. He has opted to keep his dosage lower to avoid some side effects and lives with a tremor in his right arm, he said.

He tries to never miss a tai chi class, he said.

“A little improvement is a lot for me. In a disease that’s progressive, to be able to stall it or see some improvement is a pretty big thing for me,” Meyers said.

“I certainly hope it continues,” he said of the tai chi program.

Li Li, Ph.D., began the Peripheral Neuropathy Studies in the summer of 2004, in LSU’s Department of Kinesiology in the College of Education.

He said he believes the tai chi intervention program is the only one of its kind in the country.

“There’s a lot of research out there showing tai chi helps balance” Li said.

“We started the program to help them regain their balance. We got great results,” said Li, the Jo Ellen Levy Yates Professor in LSU’s kinesiology department.

 “After about six months, their balance improves, their gait improves. It’s less painful. A lot tell us they can feel the bottom of their feet (again),” said Li of the participants.

Zhuang, the instructor, has modified the tai chi for the two different groups, those with peripheral neuropathy and those with Parkinson’s disease, Li said.

“Our biggest goal is to help these people maintain their function,” said Jan Hondzinski, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Sensorimotor Laboratory in the LSU Department of Kinesiology.

She and assistant professor Arend Van Gemmert, Ph.D., are working with Li on a study for those with Parkinson’s disease.

“Both of these diseases are degenerative … if we can give some of that function back, we love to see that,” Hondzinski said.

The Parkinson’s program began in September 2009 with close to 10 participants, Li said.

The class for those with peripheral neuropathy has grown from about 30 since its beginnings several years ago to about 60.

Spouses or friends who drive the participants to class are invited to also participate and serve as “controls” in the study, for comparative, research purposes, Li said.

For several years, the program has been funded by a grant from the local Reilly Family Foundation, Li said.

Patty Ross, 69, a member of the peripheral neuropathy class, began having symptoms of the disease 10 years ago, although it took some time for her to get a diagnosis, she said.

At one point, the pain in her feet was so bad that she could only get relief by putting her feet in a bucket of ice water, Ross said.

She began participating in the tai chi program at LSU almost from the beginning, a little more than five years ago, and still goes three days a week.

“If it wasn’t for Thomas, none of us would be walking,” Ross said of the class’s instructor.

While she still deals with pain in her feet, Ross said the tai chi has given her “more strength in my feet … It’s helped my whole body to be stronger.”

 The class seems to have become a sort of community for participants over the years.

A few years ago, members traveled as a group with their instructor to China.

On the trip, the Americans practiced their tai chi outdoors in public places, once at the Great Wall of China, as the people in China do, said Dennis Edmon,
who’s participated in the program at LSU since it’s beginning.
Peripheral neuropathy is a very common disease, Li said, with more than 20 million Americans suffering from it.

But it doesn’t seem to receive a lot of attention, he said.

“This is a group of people who desperately need help,” said Li, who also directs the Biomechanics Laboratory in the LSU Department of Kinesiology.

The beneficial results of the tai chi classes are encouraging, but the reasons for the improvements are unclear, he said.

“To this day, I don’t know why” tai chi helps, Li said.

“That’s the next part of the research,” he said. 

Tai chi classes for those with peripheral neuropathy are offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. and from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Classes for those with Parkinson’s disease meet at 11:45 a.m. on the same days. All sessions are in Hatcher Hall on the LSU campus.

For more information, visit the Web site of LSU’s Peripheral Neuropathy Studies at http://www.pn.lsu.edu; call (225) 578--2036 or e-mail lli3@lsu.edu.

For information about the local peripheral neuropathy support group, call Dennis Edmon, (225) 292-6723 or (225) 202-5400. For Parkinson’s disease support group information, contact Lee Mazzoli, (225) 275-8549).

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