Addressing the needs of adaptive athletes involved in elite competitions

June 04, 2021

Physiatrist Arthur J. De Luigi, D.O., M.H.A., the chair of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Mayo Clinic's campus in Arizona, has a unique perspective on how to meet the needs of competitive athletes with disabilities. Through his roles as head physician for the U.S. Adaptive Alpine Ski Team and U.S. Parasnowboarding Team and as a team physician for the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association, Dr. De Luigi has witnessed firsthand the challenges and achievements that these elite competitors experience. He also served as editor and co-author for a textbook called Adaptive Sports Medicine: A Clinical Guide, published in 2018.

Currently, Dr. De Luigi is preparing to work with athletes who will compete in the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in China. In this Q&A, Dr. De Luigi shares some of his experiences and the knowledge he's gained while working with these inspiring athletes.

Do sports injuries impact competitive athletes with disabilities and athletes without disabilities differently?

In general, sports injuries can have more of a detrimental impact in people with disabilities, particularly for wheelchair athletes who develop upper extremity injuries. In addition to affecting the individual's athletic performance, these injuries may also interfere with the ability to perform activities of daily living and quality of life.

Is there research data documenting the rates of injury among competitive and Paralympic athletes with physical disabilities, or is this an area that needs more study?

Yes, there have been numerous surveillance studies showing the rates of injury among adaptive athletes. Overall, when comparing injuries affecting athletes participating in adaptive sports with those affecting able-bodied competitors, the injury rates are similar. But there may be slightly different injury patterns in the athletes with a disability.

Which Paralympic sports have the highest injury rates, and how do these injury rates compare with those found among competitive athletes without disabilities?

Athletics, goalball, football 5-a-side and powerlifting are repeatedly reported as the higher risk summer sports. Alpine skiing, para ice hockey and snowboarding are the higher risk winter sports.

What's happening in the field of adaptive equipment development today?

There are many recent advancements in the technology and biomechanics in the field of adaptive sports prosthetic devices that are encouraging. Because of the expanded opportunities for participation in sports for people with a limb deficiency, there has been significantly increased demand for new, innovative prosthetic designs. This enhanced demand has challenged the traditional philosophies as well as the clinical and technical expertise of physicians and prosthetists. Similarly, design advancements in wheelchairs used for sports have helped drive advances in wheelchairs developed for general use as well.

Has working with the Paralympic teams taught you anything about working with everyday athletes and other patients with disabilities that you see in your practice at Mayo?

Absolutely. It is amazing to witness their perseverance and recovery. It embodies the concept of getting your patients back to the things they like to do and adding life to years!

For more information

De Luigi AJ, ed. Adaptive Sports Medicine: A Clinical Guide. Springer; 2018.