Ping Pong Holds Promise for Improving Parkinson’s Symptoms

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After weekly ping pong sessions, participants in a pilot study had significant improvements in speech, handwriting, getting dressed, getting out of bed, and walking.

Few are the joys of physical therapy. While its effects may feel great, physical therapy itself can sometimes be a bit of a slog. But exercise and physical therapy are important, holistic ways to improve health ... which is why a new study out of Japan's Fukuoka University is so intriguing. The researchers found that playing ping pong may lead to significant improvements in Parkinson’s symptoms. Ping pong!

“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. “We wanted to examine if people with Parkinson’s disease would see similar benefits that may in turn reduce some of their symptoms.”

Parkinson’s Disease is a chronic neurological condition that affects around one million people in the United States and around 6 million people globally, according to the Parkinson Foundation. It is the second-most prevalent neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer's.

The disease is caused by a gradual loss of the neurotransmitting brain chemical known as dopamine. Decreased dopamine means a disruption in carrying signals to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination, giving way to symptoms such as resting tremor, general slowness, stiffness of the limbs, impaired posture, walking problems, poor balance and speech changes.

The preliminary study included 12 people (average age of 73) with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's for seven years on average.

The participants were tested at the beginning of the study to assess the type and degree of symptoms they had. They then had a ping pong session once a week. The sessions included stretching exercises and specific ping pong exercises led by experienced table tennis players from the department of Sports Science of Fukuoka University.

The symptoms were then assessed again at three months and six months (at the end of the study). The American Academy of Neurology explains the results:

The study found 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, it took participants an average of more than two attempts to get out of bed at the beginning of the study compared to an average of one attempt at the end of the study.

They also had 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 zero to four with a score of one representing minimal rigidity, two representing mild rigidity, three representing moderate rigidity and four representing severe rigidity. The average score for all participants at the start of the study was three compared to an average score of two at the end of the study."

“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 research will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's 72nd Annual Meeting in April, 2020.