Incredible journey

How I practice: Helping Paralympic athletes go for the gold

Jeff Anthony, DO, looks back on his experience treating athletes as a team physician at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.

Editor’s note: Last month, Jeff Anthony, DO, traveled across the globe to serve as 1 of 4 U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) team physicians for the 2016 Paralympic Games, held Sept. 7-18 in Rio. A first-time Paralympic physician, Dr. Anthony divided his time between the USOC medical center and various competition venues.

Now back home in San Diego, Dr. Anthony recently shared takeaways from his time in Rio, including the most common Paralympic injuries and the benefits of osteopathic manipulative treatment for elite athletes with disabilities.

Lay of the land

As a Paralympic physician, I spent much of my time at the USOC medical center, located in the same athletes’ village used for the 2016 Olympic Games. The center housed four physicians, three chiropractors, two physical therapists, an acupuncturist and four athletic trainers. Some teams brought their own massage therapists and athletic trainers, but most athletes were treated by the physicians at the medical center.

The medical center was open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day. At least one physician, one athletic trainer and one chiropractor or physical therapist were required to staff the center at all times, with the rest of the medical team covering activities at event venues.

Travel to venues could, at times, be arduous—especially through the heavy traffic of Rio. The medical team helped transport athletes, wheelchairs (regular and competition), prosthetics, medical supplies and water.

Treating mind and body

We treated athletes for colds, sore throats, respiratory and GI conditions. I also encountered several athletes with injuries resulting from wear and tear caused by prosthetics, including pressure sores, ulcerations and infections. Overuse injuries were common, and we treated a few fractures and lacerations.

The impact on athletes’ psychological and mental health was more subtle. Athletes often experience anxiety before a competition or depression if they don’t perform as well as expected. Some patients can even become overwhelmed with the excitement of winning.

In addition to providing treatment, members of the medical team also spent a good amount of time on paperwork, since all injuries and treatments must be documented.

Hands-on care

As a DO, I was able to provide athletes with an added advantage: OMT.

One Paralympian, a tract cyclist with only one arm, was being awakened in the night by phantom pain. We determined he had a first rib lesion and cervical strain. OMT helped ease the phantom pain and he was able to get the rest he needed.

I also used OMT to provide relief for a wheelchair fencer with cerebral palsy who was experiencing severe neck pain and a cyclist with thoracolumbar pain related to injuries sustained in a fall five months ago.

In the zone

I provided medical support at several events during my time in Rio, including men’s sitting volleyball, wheelchair tennis, blind judo, and goalball.

Some events, like wheelchair tennis, have separate classes for paraplegic and quadriplegic athletes. Quadriplegic Paralympians often have a weaker grip and face challenges in regulating their body temperature. They have to take special care to take breaks, drink water, etc., to make sure they don’t become overheated.

One of the biggest perks of being part of the medical team was being able to watch all the amazing athletes in action. It truly was an unforgettable experience.

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