Channel NewsAsia

Prosthetic leg technology has improved, but not affordable for many para-athletes

A prosthetic leg with the latest technology promises performance and speed but it can also cost between S$14,000 and S$17,000.

SINGAPORE: Prosthetic leg technology for athletes has improved by leaps and bounds, making it easier and less painful to use. Para-athletes hope it can enable them to not just regain their mobility, but compete shoulder-to-shoulder with their able-bodied counterparts one day.

Para-sprinter Lieu Teck Hua has been running with sporting prosthetic legs for three years. Using this high-tech carbon fibre blade, he participated in the 2015 ASEAN Para Games.

However, his first prosthetic leg had a poor grip, slipped frequently, and also left him with abrasions and excess perspiration.

“I can probably only run for like 400 metres with the initial one (prosthetic leg) that I had,” said Lieu. “Then my whole stump will become very, very sore, and I would have to take out my leg, dry my stump, before putting the leg back on.”

“But with this sprinting leg which I have - the one with the newest technology - I’m able to put on my leg for the entire training session. In terms of the performance and speed, it is drastically different from the first one that I had."

PROSTHETIC LEG TECHNOLOGY NOT AFFORDABLE FOR ALL

Lieu's current prosthetic leg cost as much as around S$14,000 to S$17,000, depending on exchange rates.

However, not every para-athlete can afford the latest technology. Ahead of the recent ASEAN Para Games, the International Committee of the Red Cross, partnering the prosthetic-orthotic school in Vietnam, stepped in to equip three para-athletes with higher-quality legs under its ICRC Special Fund for the Disabled.

Lieu himself did not pay for his prosthetic legs out of his own pocket, as the injury that cost him his right leg was sustained while he was serving in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), and the army thus paid for his prosthesis needs.

"I never heard of anyone that really got sponsored a leg before. Most (people) that I know of pay out of (their) own pocket," he added.

With technology advancing at a rapid rate, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has set up rules to ensure a level playing field. This includes making sure that competition equipment used is reasonably available to all para-athletes commercially, and that human performance, not technology, remains the key focus.

BEING ON PAR WITH OTHER ABLE-BODIED ATHLETES 

But for para-athletes like Lieu, the dream remains to one day match their able-bodied counterparts.

Other fundamental principles that IPC Athletics promotes regarding equipment used for Recognised Competitions are the safety of the equipment used to the user, other competitors, officials, spectators and the environment, and that the athlete does not receive an unfair advantage that is not within the “spirit” of the event they are contesting.

In 2012, South African para-sprinter Oscar Pistorius made history as the first amputee runner to qualify and compete at the London Olympic Games. Pistorius made it as far as the men's 400m semifinals, beating many other able-bodied runners.

Even though running blades are lighter to lift and swing, that advantage can be overshadowed by heavier demands not placed on the able-bodied.

Trevor Binedell, who is the Assistant Head of Prosthetics and Orthotics Service at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, said: "Athletes that run with this type of technology need to move their legs very quickly.

“They need to swing their leg through very quickly, use a lot of the buttock muscles - the gluteal muscles - and the quadriceps to compensate for the lack of foot and ankle complex. They also have to have a very strong core muscle, to control their body position and centre of gravity."

Lieu added: "With the advancement in prosthetic legs, hopefully it will shorten the gap to a point where my performance can be on par with the able-bodied. That’s of course something that all people with disability will look forward to. But for now, we’re still quite a distance away."

However, he is not waiting for engineers to push the limits of what can be achieved through technology. Lieu has already set his sights on qualifying for the 2018 Asian Para Games, with an eye towards the Paralympics in Tokyo two years after.