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Table tennis can ‘revolutionise MS therapy around the world’, says US doctor

A small study found that table tennis improved the mobility, balance and core muscle strength of people with multiple sclerosis

Table tennis could be prescribed to patients with multiple sclerosis after a small study found that the sport improved the mobility, balance and core muscle strength of those with the condition. Dr Antonio Barbera, an assistant clinical professor in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Colorado, believes social prescribing of table tennis to MS patients could ‘revolutionise MS therapy around the world’.

After being diagnosed with MS himself, Dr Barbera found that playing table tennis helped him regain motion and sensation in parts of his body where it had previously been declining. He even says the sport has helped him walk again. For the last three years, Dr Barbera has been holding table tennis sessions that have seen positive results for MS patients, including reported improvements in mobility, balance, flexibility and core muscle strength.

‘Being such a fast game, ping pong really challenges our brain much more than any other activity,’ says Dr Barbera. ‘It brings together aerobic activity and balance and eye coordination - it works the core and legs and it makes people smile.’

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Now, a larger trial to validate Dr Barbera’s findings has begun in the US and Italy, with hopes to trial it in the UK too. ‘I hope this trial will set that process in motion by scientifically validating the benefits that me and many others have seen.’

These findings are welcome news to those in the UK working in social prescribing. Independent consultant nurse, Julia Briscoe described social prescribing as a ‘holistic and accessible approach’ to supporting people in making decisions about their health. Whether it is a prescription of a fitness class, encouraging healthy eating, or joining a social group, social prescribing is increasingly being used to treat both physical and mental health needs.

Ms Briscoe also noted the numerous benefits of social prescribing. ‘It has repercussions across the whole spectrum of population health,’ she said. ‘Whether that is remaining as fit as possible whilst waiting for surgery, supporting recovery, maintaining quality of life, or improving mental or physical health.’

Social prescribing has now been included in the NHS Long Term Plan. NHS England has said it is ‘committed’ to building infrastructure for social prescribing in primary and community-based care. The goal is for at least 900,000 people to be referred to social prescribing by the end of 2024.

‘We live in a fast-paced world, and it can be very easy to feel left behind and powerless,’ Ms Briscoe added. ‘Social prescribing can be a small step towards feeling part of a bigger picture or solution to public health.’