Patients suffering Parkinson's disease are exercising and relaxing through an ancient martial art.
Like Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox, 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson's. Doctors are more commonly prescribing alternative practices, such as Tai Chi and meditation, to patients, along with modern medicines.
Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital advised Joan Larsen to pursue Tai Chi when they diagnosed her with Parkinson's two years ago.
"I wanted something that would help me at the early stages of my disease," Larsen said.
As Parkinson's progresses, patients experience involuntary movement and have problems getting around in daily tasks.
"It's a condition that causes rigidity in the muscles, as well as some balance issues," said Dr. Nancy Huggins, a nurse practitioner in Massachusetts General's Parkinson's Clinic.
Tai Chi may help Parkinson's patients by relaxing and loosening the body. Studies have shown that relaxation can ease pain and speed the healing process.
"We stretch, because rigidity is a problem with Parkinson's. You want to counteract that over and over again," said Camille Kittrell, a Tai Chi instructor.
For patients with movement disorders such as Parkinson's, Tai Chi is also a good form of exercise.
"What we're finding in today's medical literature is that exercise is key if you're diagnosed with Parkinson's. In fact, it's being put up right next to the medicines," Huggins said.
The practice of Tai Chi does not slow the progression of Parkinson's but it might ease the disease's symptoms.
"I usually feel a lot better," Larsen said, adding that Tai Chi is helping her cope with a devastating illness.