Paralympic athletes: How do they compare to their able-bodied counterparts?

There are only 8 days until the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games and 40 days until the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games. Along with athletes and support staff, sports clinicians are starting to make their way to the Olympic village in preparation for the games.

Are there differences that clinicians should be aware of for Paralympic athletes compared to their able bodied counterparts? Medical and Scientific Director of the International Paralympic Committee, Doctor Peter Van de Vliet has recently published an editorial piece on this very topic in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. His editorial piece discusses medical conditions specific to Paralympic athletes, anti-drug doping and pharmacological management issues, and the psychological component of disability sport.

Doctor Van de Vliet comments that sports and physical activity have been increasingly incorporated into rehabilitation. However with the involvement in sport comes the risk of injury and for a disabled athlete this has the potential to impede more significantly. For example a wheel chair athlete who suffers a serious shoulder injury will have difficulty with wheel chair transfers and this will impact on their independence. In this case psychological health and wellbeing should also be closely monitored as this will have an influence on rehabilitation and sporting performance.

Certain postures and musculoskeletal changes may help a Paralympic athlete execute various sporting actions. For example a lower limb amputee may rely on tight hip flexors to mobilise on their prostheses but more importantly complete the 100 meter sprint in record time. Therefore treatment aimed at releasing these muscles may impede on their performance and reduce their chances at a Paralympic medal. Therefore sports clinicians need to be aware not only of the biomechanical demands of specific sports but acknowledge any compensatory musculoskeletal changes used for sporting performance.

Chapter 46 of the new edition of the Clinical Sports Medicine textbook is dedicated to ‘The athlete with a disability.’ It is a must read for any clinician working with athletes with disabilities. The chapter discusses the health benefits of physical activity, choosing a suitable sport and clinical presentations such as pressure sores, autonomic dysreflexia and urinary tract infections.

Other resources:

The International Paralympic Committee website:

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is the global governing body of the Paralympic Movement. Its purpose is to organize the summer and winter Paralympic Games and act as the International Federation for nine sports, supervising and coordinating World Championships and other competitions. The vision of the IPC is ‘To enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.’

Australian Paralympic committee:

The Australian Paralympic Committee helps Australians with disabilities participate in sport and compete at the Paralympic Games through partnerships with governments, business, sporting bodies and the community.


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