Cooling Athletes with a Spinal Cord Injury

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Abstract

Cooling strategies that help prevent a reduction in exercise capacity whilst exercising in the heat have received considerable research interest over the past 3 decades, especially in the lead up to a relatively hot Olympic and Paralympic Games. Progressing into the next Olympic/Paralympic cycle, the host, Rio de Janeiro, could again present an environmental challenge for competing athletes. Despite the interest and vast array of research into cooling strategies for the able-bodied athlete, less is known regarding the application of these cooling strategies in the thermoregulatory impaired spinal cord injured (SCI) athletic population. Individuals with a spinal cord injury (SCI) have a reduced afferent input to the thermoregulatory centre and a loss of both sweating capacity and vasomotor control below the level of the spinal cord lesion. The magnitude of this thermoregulatory impairment is proportional to the level of the lesion. For instance, individuals with high-level lesions (tetraplegia) are at a greater risk of heat illness than individuals with lower-level lesions (paraplegia) at a given exercise intensity. Therefore, cooling strategies may be highly beneficial in this population group, even in moderate ambient conditions (∽21 °C). This review was undertaken to examine the scientific literature that addresses the application of cooling strategies in individuals with an SCI. Each method is discussed in regards to the practical issues associated with the method and the potential underlying mechanism. For instance, site-specific cooling would be more suitable for an athlete with an SCI than whole body water immersion, due to the practical difficulties of administering this method in this population group. From the studies reviewed, wearing an ice vest during intermittent sprint exercise has been shown to decrease thermal strain and improve performance. These garments have also been shown to be effective during exercise in the able-bodied. Drawing on additional findings from the able-bodied literature, the combination of methods used prior to and during exercise and/or during rest periods/half-time may increase the effectiveness of a strategy. However, due to the paucity of research involving athletes with an SCI, it is difficult to establish an optimal cooling strategy. Future studies are needed to ensure that research outcomes can be translated into meaningful performance enhancements by investigating cooling strategies under the constraints of actual competition. Cooling strategies that meet the demands of intermittent wheelchair sports need to be identified, with particular attention to the logistics of the sport.

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