Amputee sports

Disabled athletes face many challenges in their efforts to participate in competitive sports. Playing with or against a physically challenged athlete adds a new dimension to sports.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to golf with a gentleman who had lost his leg to cancer. The level of his amputation was in the pelvis so he could not wear a functional prosthesis. He played every shot while balanced on one leg, including getting out of sand traps. He shot an 84 on a course he’d never played before and never slowed the pace of the game.

The human body has a tremendous ability to adapt to conditions as they are presented. This function is much more efficient in people who are in good general health. In the case of a lower extremity amputation, the nervous system adapts by refining the neurologic network of the cerebellum, inner ear, and peripheral nerves to improve balance. Often the biggest obstacle is fear and a lack of confidence.

Dr. James Leonard, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the University of Michigan, works extensively with amputees. “Young amputees adapt quickly and those who were athletes before their amputation seem to have a better understanding of their body than non-athletes and thus fair better,” Leonard said.

Oscar Pistorius is a double amputee born without supporting leg bones between his knees and ankles. This year he will be allowed to compete in track events at the Beijing Olympics. Several protests have been registered, complaining that his prosthetic legs give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. After completing tests at the MIT laboratories, no advantage was found.

Amputees are unfortunately growing in numbers as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many were accomplished athletes before their injuries and have a tremendous desire to return to sports. The Wounded Warrior/Disabled Sports Project establishes programs for wounded veterans to get back to competition.

While we tend to focus our interests in sports on famous, well-paid athletes, it is comforting to know that the athletic spirit is alive and well at other levels of sports.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital with a private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC in Norwich. He can be emailed at You can listen to a podcast of this column at

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