The role of sports in spinal cord injuries

The ultimate goal of rehabilitation for persons with Spinal Cord Injuries has shifted over time from an extension of their life expectancy to the attainment of an optimal level of independent living and quality of life. Increased fitness through physical exercise or sports is beneficial to a person with SCI and their longevity in life.

People with SCI experience a dramatic change in the way their time is spent. They typically do not return to work right away and must adjust to sudden “forced leisure.” This “forced leisure” often forces people with SCI to make sudden, radical lifestyle changes. Many persons need to learn new leisure skills, particularly those who did not value leisure time prior to their injury. Many people experience difficulty in making this leisure time adjustment. And turn to alcohol and substance abuse and a sedentary lifestyle.

One factor that has a serious negative effect on the quality of life for individuals with SCI is a deterioration of their physical fitness through “disuse” or physical de-conditioning. The normal aging process, combined with physical de-conditioning can significantly limit individual independence and activities in daily living.

Participation in sports or exercise not only increase the longevity of a person’s life, but it can make their everyday living easier. Those who are in better physical shape can manoeuvre their wheelchair better than those who are not in good physical shape. They would have more confidence in handling the wheelchair when negotiating curbs or hills.

While competition and winning are just as important to disabled athletes, participation in sports and physical exercise through sports training provides lifetime benefits. The Special Olympics calls this “Training for Life.” Research had shown that participation in the Special Olympics leads to higher social competence and better self-esteem among these athletes.

Exercise is good for everyone. The benefits from participating in sports are not any different for athletes with disabilities than for able-bodied athletes. Researchers have described physical, psychological, and social benefits from participating in sports.

Physical Benefits

For persons with a disability who require the use of adaptive devices (walkers, crutches, wheelchair), being in good physical shape enables them to use their equipment more effectively, with less fatigue after longer usage. In addition, they have fewer chances of injury from the everyday strain on their joints when using these adaptive devices.

Athletes have healthier body fat to muscle ratio, decreased obesity, improved cardiopulmonary functioning, and increased muscular strength and endurance. They show improved mobility, balance, and endurance.

Psychological Benefits

People with disabilities who participate in sports or regular exercise have shown to handle pressure and stress better when compared to those who did not exercise. They also experienced less depression, confusion, tension and anger. Sports provide the disabled athlete with the opportunity to develop a sense of mastery and to set and achieve certain goals. Swimmers are reported to have a strong self-identity, strong competitive nature, and goal-oriented focus.

Social Benefits

Through sports, persons with disabilities would have the opportunity to experience peer interaction, acceptance, and recognition. And through sports, the disabled athlete can demonstrate to the able-bodied athletes against any discrimination on their ability to perform and excel in life.

Author – Stephen Sofer, PhD (former Vice President, Special Projects at United Spinal Association, USA)