Background: Patients suffering from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) experience a wide array of symptoms, including balance problems, mobility impairment, fatigue and depression. Physical exercise has recently been acknowledged as a treatment option complementary to medication. However, information regarding putative effects of structured exercise programs on neurological symptoms is sparse. Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art incorporating physical exercise and mindfulness training, has been shown to yield health benefits in various neurological groups. It seems particularly suitable for patients with motoric deficits as it challenges coordination and balance. The purpose of the current study was to explore the therapeutic value of structured Tai Chi training for coordination, balance, fatigue and depression in mildly disabled MS patients.
Methods: A sample of 32 MS patients (Expanded Disability Status Scale, EDSS < 5) was examined. A structured Tai Chi course was devised and a Tai Chi group participated in two weekly sessions of 90 minutes duration for six months, while a comparison group received treatment as usual (TAU). Both groups were examined prior to and following the six-months interval with regards to balance and coordination performance as well as measures of fatigue, depression and life satisfaction.
Results: Following the intervention, the Tai Chi group showed significant, consistent improvements in balance, coordination, and depression, relative to the TAU group (range of effect-sizes: partial η2 = 0.16 - 0.20). Additionally, life satisfaction improved (partial η2 = 0.31). Fatigue deteriorated in the comparison group, whereas it remained relatively stable in the Tai Chi group (partial η2 = 0.24).
Conclusions: The consistent pattern of results confirms that Tai Chi holds therapeutic potential for MS patients. Further research is needed to determine underlying working mechanisms, and to verify the results in a larger sample and different MS subgroups.