It may sound strange, but people with Parkinson’s disease are stepping into boxing rings to help combat their symptoms. They aren’t throwing uppercuts for a shot at a title, but experts say they are winning an improved quality of life, and so are their families.
Perhaps the most famous person to have the disease was former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Dr. Stanley Fischer told Up To Date host Steve Kraske that the ultimate cause of Parkinson's is probably a combination of "bad genes, bad luck and wear and tear."
Fischer, who is a neurologist at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, says it's unclear whether repeated head injuries could be contributing factors for the disease.
Sarissa Curry is a boxing coach at Ready Steady Boxing and talks about how she began training people with Parkinson’s. For years, there wasn’t anything offered in Kansas City, but after she saw the results of her first trainees, who sought her out, it became something that consumed her mind.
"I have several boxers at this point who for the past year, were walking with a cane or walker because … they were a fall risk and now they are no longer using those tools to walk,” Curry says. “They can walk freely."
Her training program includes non-contact exercise like jumping jacks, bag-punching and other complex movements. The goal is to increase heart rate and produce dopamine.
For people with the disease, the brain slowly stops producing dopamine, and body movement and emotions are reduced, but the unplanned movement can help encourage the production of new dopamine.
"I tell people [with Parkinson’s], 'I have bad news and good news,'" says Dr. Fischer. "'[The bad news is] you have Parkinson's disease, but the good news is it the most treatable neurological condition.'"
The most overlooked factor in combating Parkinson’s disease, says Curry, is the toll it takes on loved ones who surround the disease.
“Everyone who is there is a mother, a father, a daughter, a sister, a grandparent, and we're improving the quality of their life,” says Curry. “Which means that, for a time, they have more of the person they've known their whole life.”
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, approximately 50 million Americans are affected by over 600 neurological disorders every year.
“As our population ages, we expect an epidemic of neurodegenerative disorders,” Fischer says. “As we know there is no cure.”
"I envision our treatments will get so good we will be able to maintain patients with Parkinson's for the duration of their life," says Dr. Fischer “This is much more likely than a cure.”
Curry’s students have some initial reluctance and drag their feet — usually they have no desire to be in the ring — but when they put on the gloves and make that first step, Curry says it's a big transformation.
"They walk in the door and they become a boxer."
Ryan Hennessy is an intern for KCUR's Up To Date.