The Paralympic Games: Born from rehabilitation treatment for spinal injuries

5 September 2016

The Olympic Games may have come to a close, but we can still look forward to all the action of the Paralympic Games, due to take place in Rio between 7 – 18 September 2016. What I did not realise until recently was the fact that the Paralympic Games owe a debt to the treatment of spinal injury patients during and shortly after World War II.

The creation of the spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital (widely regarded today as one of the world’s leading units in the treatment of spinal injury) was imperative to the formation of the Paralympic Games which exist today. The Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville was opened on 1 February 1944 by Dr Ludwig Guttmann, who believed passionately that sport was a major method of therapy for injured military personnel. Dr Guttmann focussed on using sport as a way of helping injured veterans who had suffered a spinal cord injury to rebuild their physical strength, self-esteem and confidence.

Dr Guttmann organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled military personnel on 28 July 1948, the same day as the opening of the 1948 London Olympic Games. An international competition between British and Dutch World War II veterans took place four years later, in 1952. Commonly recognised as a pre-curser to the Paralympic Games we have today, the Stoke Mandeville Games later became a four-yearly event officially linked to the Olympic Games. At the Stoke Mandeville Games, all the participants were war veterans but the first Paralympic Games, held in Rome in 1960, widened the criteria of athletes who could participate; 400 athletes from 23 countries participated in the Rome Games.

When we think of events such as the Invictus Games, it seems Dr Guttmann was ahead of his time in making the link between sport, rehabilitation and the treatment of spinal injury (and other serious physical injuries). He introduced sport as part of the mandatory rehabilitation treatment at Stoke Mandeville, and the mission of the Invictus Games is to “use the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick Servicemen and women”.

It would be welcome to see this approach used far more frequently across the health service at large. As personal injury and clinical negligence solicitors, we see the catastrophic impact that suffering a spinal injury can have, not only on the person who suffers the injury, but also on their family, their friends and their career. Many clients come to us having experienced difficulties in accessing physiotherapy, let alone having received specialist advice and support about how to access sports therapy or targeted rehabilitation.  When litigation in a case involving spinal injury is on-going, funds are likely to be limited; the client may have had to give up work, and most people do not have the means to pay privately for specialist therapy or rehabilitation treatment (which are expensive to access) before they receive damages. As Richard Lodge suggests in his blog, the 2007 Rehabilitation Code should reflect the Pre-action Protocol for the Resolution of Clinical Disputes 2015. This would mean that the same guidance for Defendants would extend to those who suffer their spinal cord injury as a result of clinical negligence, as well as those whose spinal injury is caused by an accident. Defendants in both personal injury and clinical negligence claims relating to spinal injury must consider, as early as possible, whether the claimant has reasonable needs that could be met by rehabilitation treatment or other measures.

Emphasis on sport as a means of therapy and rehabilitation is undoubtedly not for all patients with a spinal injury. Treatment of a serious injury which impacts so many aspects of daily life can never have a one-size fits all approach. However, in our experience, it can make a remarkable difference to some people, particularly those who are interested in sport. Hopefully the Paralympics of 2016 will highlight the incredible sporting achievements of the competitors and emphasise that the power of sport, and the passion and sense of satisfaction it brings, is for all.

If you have suffered a spinal injury caused by personal injury or clinical negligence, you can contact the team at Kingsley Napley for advice. You can contact us by email at or by telephone on +44 (0)20 7814 1200.

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