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Tai chi therapy

Martial arts class proves beneficial for people with peripheral neuropathy

Advocate staff writer
Published: May 21, 2006

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Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS
Advocate staff photos by PATRICK DENNIS Instructor Thomas Yajun, foreground, leads a special tai chi class at LSU that has helped some participants with peripheral neuropathy to improve balance and walking skills. Among those participating are, from left, Wilda Denham, Ivory Toldson and Jim Thibodeaux.

Juanita Guillot feels certain she would be in a wheelchair today were it not for a special tai chi class she takes at LSU to improve her balance and walking skills.

In 1995, Guillot was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy, which is damage to nerve endings that causes weakness, numbness, tingling, burning and pain in the hands, arms, feet and legs. Balance problems and loss of sensation can make it difficult to walk, drive and grip.

In Guillot, the disease progressed to the point where she was staggering, holding on to people and objects as she moved about, and she even fell a couple of times.

“I’m 62 years old, not an old lady,” she said. “Three years ago, I thought about getting a cane and was afraid I was headed for the wheelchair, but not now. No way!”

As a member of the Baton Rouge Peripheral Neuropathy Support Group, Guillot heard about the tai chi class, which was initiated by Li Li, an LSU kinesiologist who was interested in helping people afflicted with peripheral neuropathy.

“I’m a biomechanist, which means I study balance and gait,” Li said. “About four years ago, I met a man who could walk well but had to hold on to something in order to stand. That suggested to me that the control mechanisms of balance and walking are different, and I found that very interesting.

“About two years ago, I started going to the support group meetings for people with peripheral neuropathy, and they were seeking help. So, I started a six-week study in the summer of 2004 comparing two forms of exercise, walking and tai chi, to see what impact they might have on balance and gait.”

Both groups saw improvements, he said, but the tai chi group was more motivated to continue the program.

Preliminary data from testing showed most participants had recovered balance, improved mobility and suffered less pain. A small percentage even recovered some sensation in their feet.

“I believe there is a link between tai chi and nerve regrowth,” Li said. Many of the participants have been able to give up their canes and walkers. Falling and fear of falling are major concerns for peripheral neuropathy patients. Several of the class members reported falling less and walking with greater confidence.

Participants started with a modified beginner’s class, many of them holding onto chairs to keep their balance. “Now, there are no more chairs,” Li said.

Now, almost two years after the pilot study began, more than 30 people are still meeting for classes behind the LSU Fieldhouse two to three times a week for either 60- or 90-minute sessions.

Instructor Thomas Yajun leads the group in the Chinese martial arts form believed to promote health and longevity and improve internal circulation. It has also been called a “moving meditation.” Participants employ slow, graceful, repetitive movements in a natural range of motion over their center of gravity.

In addition, some of the LSU study participants are undergoing a special infrared light therapy to determine whether it might show some of the same benefits.

Local neurologist Allen Proctor works with Li to review the study procedures. One other faculty member, a doctoral student, three undergraduate students and Yajun are also involved.

Thus far, the program has been conducted with the support of the college, but with little in the way of direct funding and at no cost to the participants. Li said he hopes to apply for funds to support the program and offer services to more peripheral neuropathy patients.

Guillot, a retired licensed practical nurse who lives in Baker, says her condition has improved though she still has some numbness.

“I’m not staggering as much. I’m better able to control my balance. I don’t have to grab on to people, and I haven’t fallen since I started tai chi. I have more confidence about going out in public again. It (the class) has been a Godsend to me.”

Eighty-one-year-old Pat Dimeceli of Amite and her son, Darryl, travel three hours round-trip three times a week to participate in the class. She has some numbness in her feet, and her son, who was electrocuted, was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy.

“My son had to use a cane before but he doesn’t now. He’s doing much better. So am I. I saw my cardiologist last week, and he said, ‘You look great. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up. It’s given me such a positive outlook. I wouldn’t give it (the class) up for the world,” Dimeceli said.

Dennis Edmon was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy in 1998. “I heard about the tai chi class through Dr. Li and the support group. I didn’t think it would help, but I was willing to try anything.

“In a few weeks, I saw improvements in my balance. I still have some numbness, but I feel more sure of myself. I don’t stumble as much or fall anymore. Now, I schedule everything around tai chi. I attend classes religiously and only miss if I go out of town.”

There are many known causes of peripheral neuropathy, according to The Neuropathy Association. Treating the underlying condition can, in some cases, slow, stop or reverse the condition. Vitamin deficiencies can be corrected with supplements, and infections are treated with antibiotics. Toxic or drug-induced neuropathies are treated by removing the offending agent, and in diabetes (the most common known cause of neuropathy), close control of blood sugar helps slow the development of neuropathy.

In one-third of cases, there is no known cause and no cure, though treatment can help.

In some cases, treatment means relief of symptoms, such as pain, but what works for one patient may not work for another, and some of the medications can have undesirable side effects.

The LSU program has a continuous open enrollment. For more information on Li’s studies and the tai chi group, visit the LSU Web site http://www.pn.lsu.edu or call (225) 578-2036.

For more information about peripheral neuropathy, the Neuropathy Association maintains a Web site at http://www.neuropathy.org.





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