By: Dennis Thompson
Multiple sclerosis patients might be able to think more clearly and move more easily if they regularly undergo whole-body vibration training, a new pilot study reports.
A small group of MS patients who experienced vibration training showed improvements in decision making, information processing, attention and memory, according to findings recently published in the International Journal of MS Care.
They were also able to walk faster and reported improved quality of life both physically and mentally after the therapy.
Vibration training involves standing on a rapidly shaking platform. The fast-paced vibrations force your muscles to contract and relax dozens of times each second, even though it seems you’re passively standing there.
“The mechanical stimulation is very tiny. You can barely feel it because the movement is very small, 1 to 2 millimeters, but it moves very fast,” said lead researcher Feng Yang. He is an associate professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University, in Atlanta.
It’s being examined as a potentially useful physical therapy for MS patients, stroke victims and people with spinal cord injuries or other movement disorders, said Yang and Kathy Zackowski, associate vice president of research with the National MS Society.
“This idea of using a vibrating platform for therapy has been around for at least 10 years, but the evidence behind it has been really slowly coming,” said Zackowski, who was not involved with the study.
Studies have shown that vibration therapy can improve strength, balance and flexibility in people with MS, Yang said.
But in those physical studies, the researchers thought they saw some improvement in the patients’ mental abilities as well.
To test that possibility, Yang and his colleagues drafted 18 adults with MS and randomly assigned half to take vibration training three times a week for six weeks.
By the end of the study period, the patients showed an average 16% improvement on information processing and attention tests, a 13% improvement in planning and organizing tests, and a 45% improvement in memory.
The researchers aren’t sure why a physical therapy would help mental ability, but Yang suspects it’s because exercise has long been linked to brain power.
“There are so many studies that have reported that regular exercise training or regular physical activity can preserve or can even improve cognition,” Yang said. “We are thinking that vibration training as a type of exercise training can also improve cognition.”
Yang and his team are planning larger trials, which will be needed to verify these early findings.
Zackowski said, “This paper is really showing that it’s feasible and safe to do this, and there were some improvements in cognition. That’s good, but the research is in its infancy.”
At this point, you’re more likely to find a vibration therapy platform at a gym or fitness center than in a hospital or rehabilitation clinic, Yang said.
The platforms aren’t that expensive, running between $250 and $400 for a home unit.
However, at this early stage it’s doubtful that insurance covers vibration therapy, Yang and Zackowski said.
Vibration therapy has mainly been tested in MS patients who can walk either on their own or with the assistance of a crutch or walker, Yang said.
“We haven’t tried this training with those who cannot walk,” he said. “If they cannot walk, they cannot stand and so they cannot do the training, because to do the training you need to be able to stand on the platform.”
Results from other studies indicate that vibration therapy might be more helpful to people with MS who have more advanced disability, so researchers are looking into ways to adapt the platform to support people who can’t stand on their own, Yang said.
Zackowski sees no harm in vibration therapy, but she’s concerned that people might pursue this unproven option instead of digging into the hard work of rehab.
“We want a quick fix. Something like a pill is so much more appealing, because it’s less work. Rehabilitation is a lot of work. To do your exercises every day is a lot of effort and time,” Zackowski said. “Using a tool like this, with its novelty and it’s a little more passive in that you really are just standing on it, you’re not having to do much. That’s appealing to lots of people.”
Zackowski is of two minds about the therapy.
“The holistic rehabilitation therapist in me is saying this is a terrible idea, but the practical clinician in me is like, I can see why this is appealing and it’s not hurting them, so it’s a totally viable option if we can show there are benefits to it,” she concluded.