The game of pingpong, or table tennis, may hold promise as a form of physical therapy for Parkinson’s disease, according to a preliminary study presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 72nd Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada.
The findings show that 12 Parkinson’s patients who participated in a pingpong exercise program once a week for six months experienced improvements in several symptoms, including facial expressions, posture and rigidity. They were also better at getting dressed and getting out of bed.
Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder in which the brain chemical dopamine gradually declines. This process results in slowly worsening symptoms that include tremor, stiff limbs, slowed movements, impaired posture, walking problems, poor balance and speech changes.
“Pingpong, which is also called table tennis, is a form of aerobic exercise that has been shown in the general population to improve hand-eye coordination, sharpen reflexes, and stimulate the brain,” said study author Ken-ichi Inoue, M.D., of Fukuoka University in Fukuoka, Japan.
“We wanted to examine if people with Parkinson’s disease would see similar benefits that may in turn reduce some of their symptoms.”
The research involved 12 individuals with an average age of 73 with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. The participants had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s for an average of seven years. They were tested at the start of the study to see which symptoms they had and how severe the symptoms were.
The patients then played pingpong once a week for six months. During each weekly five-hour session, they performed stretching exercises followed by table tennis exercises with instruction from an experienced table tennis player.
The program was developed specifically for Parkinson’s disease patients by experienced players from the department of Sports Science of Fukuoka University.
Parkinson’s symptoms were evaluated again after three months and at the end of the study.
The results show that at both three months and six months, study participants experienced significant improvements in speech, handwriting, getting dressed, getting out of bed and walking. For example, at the beginning of the study, it took participants an average of more than two attempts to get out of bed. At the end of the study, it took an average of one attempt to get out of bed.
Study participants also experienced significant improvements in facial expression, posture, rigidity, slowness of movement and hand tremors. For example, for neck muscle rigidity, researchers assessed symptoms and scored each participant on a scale of 0 to 4 with a score of 1 representing minimal rigidity, 2 representing mild rigidity, 3 representing moderate rigidity and 4 representing severe rigidity. The average score for all participants at the start of the study was 3 compared to an average score of 2 at the end of the study.
Two participants experienced side effects; one person developed a backache and another person fell down.
“While this study is small, the results are encouraging because they show pingpong, a relatively inexpensive form of therapy, may improve some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease,” said Inoue. “A much larger study is now being planned to confirm these findings.”
The main limitation of the study was that participants were not compared to a control group of people with Parkinson’s disease who did not play pingpong. Another limitation was that a single specialist assessed the patients.