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Wheelchair Racing: Different Strokes for Different Folks

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

May 8, 2001 -- Wheelchair racing is growing in popularity worldwide as such elite athletes as American Jean Driscoll, Australian Louise Sauvage, and Dutchman Ernst Van Dyke put global faces on the sport.

The increase in popularity is one of the reasons that John W. Chow, PhD, and his former colleagues at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, set out to determine whether a newly developed propulsion technique has advantages over the conventional method. Their findings are published in a recent issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

With the conventional technique -- also known as the thumb technique -- racers' hands, which are protected by tape, are fully flexed in a tight fist with the thumb in a slightly extended "hitchhiker's" position. The forearm is bent forward and the shoulder is internally rotated. The first contact with the wheel or pushrim involves the first joint and knuckle of the thumb. Then the forearm is bent backward and the back of the index and middle fingers (between the middle joint and knuckle) begin to make contact with the side of the wheel. Racers often flick their wrist at the bottom of the stroke.

Research has shown that racers using this technique frequently develop injuries to their shoulder, elbow, wrist, and upper extremities, says Chow, associate professor and director of the biomechanics laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Tennis elbow symptoms are especially common.

Enter the para-backhanded technique (PBT), developed by former wheelchair athlete-turned-coach Marty I. Morse, MS, the University of Illinois' men's and women's wheelchair track and field/road-racing coach.

With the new technique, racers who wear specially designed gloves place their thumb against the index finger of a closed fist. Their hand makes initial contact with the wheel, using the back of the index and middle fingers between the first and second joints rather than the thumb.

After the initial contact, the hand rises along the side of the wheel and the contact point is switched to the base of the thumb, the index, middle, and ring finger cuticles.

Unlike the conventional technique, there is limited bending of the forearm and shoulder rotation, which may potentially stave off injuries by decreasing stress in these areas.

Morse found that when racers used the new technique along with a preracing conditioning program, the number of injuries they sustained were reduced drastically.

"The main difference is the point of contact with the wheel," Chow tells WebMD.

"It's not that hard to learn," Chow says. "The problem is whenever you learn a new technique you sacrifice your performance at the very beginning."

"PBT may be more suitable for endurance athletes who use less power in their pushing strokes," Chow says. "That's our recommendation, [but] we didn't have enough data to address whether PBT is better in terms of minimizing injuries."

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