What sorts of prosthetics will you see in the Paralympics?

The Panoply of Prosthetics

Paralympians who are amputees have a wide range of prosthetics available to them, and athletes of different sports make use of different ones. Of them, some are passive function, some are mechanical and some are myoelectric. All have strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to prosthetics for arms, passive function prosthetics are the most durable and versatile. They tend to look a lot like the body parts they replace, and they have limited functionality. They may be ideal for athletes who are participating in extremely active sports, like hockey. Mechanical prosthetics use cables, pulleys and sometimes batteries to operate, and are a tad more delicate but also more functional. Myoelectric ones -- which serve best when an athlete must perform in a sport that is light duty but needs particular precision -- rely on a person’s muscles and an electric motor to coordinate prosthetic movement. Myoelectric prosthetics are state-of-the-art devices.

The field of lower-limb prosthetics isn’t short on options, either. One popular line in sporting competitions is the family of Ossur Flex-Foots. Van Phillips, an amputee, and Dale Abildskov, an aerospace engineer, teamed up to revolutionize the field back in the 1980s. For their initial model, they used carbon fiber to create an L-shaped device. This common material in the space industry is both very strong and very flexible -- ideal for the punishing treatment meted out by world-class athletes on their equipment. Nowadays, more than 90 percent of athletes with lower-limb amputations wear a Flex-Foot while training and competing [source: Cheskin].

Other lower limb prosthetics are customized for different sports and athletes. One company makes a version that’s designed for athletes with a heavier build; it features different attachments that provide varying levels of resistance. Another offers an artificial limb that can be mounted directly on a ski, which is an advantage for skiers -- the setup is lighter and easier to maneuver.

Speaking of customization, swimmers can use a prosthesis that resembles a wing in order to reduce drag in the water. It can be adjusted for maximum effectiveness, depending on what stroke the swimmer is competing in.

The diversity of available prosthetics has led to some interesting debates concerning the appropriateness of their usage.