The whole world watched in awe at the prowess of the Olympic athletes competing in Rio, but many people overlook some even more amazing athletes. Yesterday was the opening of the Paralympics and if you thought the regular Olympics was impressive, you haven’t seen anything like this! One of the disabilities seen at the Paralympics is the use of prosthetic limbs due to amputation or limb loss. In order to understand what these athletes go through just to be able to walk again, let’s take a closer look at how prosthesis is made.
Everybody is different and that means prosthetic limbs must be custom molded to each individual. Once the residual limb heals, the patient will receive a prescription from their surgeon to meet with a prosthetist to discuss options and take measurements. This usually occurs 2-6 months after surgery. The comfort and function of a proper prosthesis requires precise measurements, so taking measurements before amputation is ideal if at all possible. The prosthesis itself has three parts: the liner, the socket, and the limb.
The liner is a cushioned wrap worn on the residual limb and provides a layer of protection against the socket and can fill in space for a better fit. The socket is the connection point between human and prosthesis. The socket itself is perhaps the most important part of the prosthesis since an ill-fitting socket can result in sores, blisters, and increased pain. Since no two residual limbs have the same shape, this must be very precisely custom molded to each individual. The last part is the limb itself. There are tons of options for this based on the individual needs of the patient and what they intend to do with it. Along with functional prosthesis, cosmetic prosthetic limbs, called cosmesis, are available and can be molded and painted to an eerie life-like degree, even with matching freckles and hair.
It is common to spend six months to a year in rehabilitation just to regain proper gait, balance, and coordination. However, rehabilitation is not athletic training so those who aspire to Paralympics greatness must continue the journey past the basics of standing and walking. Two-a-day practices, specialized diets, and constant encouragement and training, all of which are required of able-bodied athletes, are also required of disabled athletes. Exercise programs may be modified to meet the needs of the individual (for example, someone with a prosthetic limb may choose to practice squats and dead lifts without their prosthesis, making their remaining leg stronger than average) but overall, Paralympics training requires the same dedication as Olympic training. This means disabled athletes are most often in better physical shape than able-bodied athletes to compete in the same events.
Overcoming the loss of a limb is already a huge obstacle, but continuing on to win a gold medal on one of the world’s biggest stages takes a whole new level of determination and positivity. These amazing athletes who represent a wide array of disabilities show the world that anything is possible and giving up is not an option. If you or someone you know is faced with this life-changing event, keep hope. There is nothing stopping you from being everything you are and more. Congratulations and good luck to all the Paralympians representing the United States in Rio these next few weeks.