In another edition of “Things that I didn’t know were things” I was informed today that the International Paralympics committee is starting to crack down on – get this – athletes who artificially blood pressure boosting to enhance their performance for an event. This seems crazy to me. Here we are, a large portion of the American populace who is obsessed with lowering their blood pressure, and these guys are trying to spike it.
This practice of ‘boosting’ means that athletes do some super weird stuff to themselves. Ever seen that image of a boxer hitting himself in the abdomen to prepare for a fight? Or some NFL players ‘psyching themselves up’ before a game by slapping themselves in the face? Well, take that and turn it up to 9000, because that’s what these hard core Paralympic athletes are doing. They have been known to engage in bizarre-seeming activity like hitting their own toes with a hammer, electric-shocking their legs, electric-shocking their testicles (!), all in the name of inducing a state known as “autonomic dysreflexia”.
Evidently, if you have a spinal chord injury (like quadriplegic athletes suffer from), your natural blood pressure is lower than non-injured folks. Also, when you engage in strenuous physical activity (like, I don’t know, competing in the olympics!), your body doesn’t do as good of a job in adapting to that activity by changing your heart rate and blood pressure. So as a quadriplegic for example, not only do you have to deal with the specifics of your injury itself, but you also have to put up with your body not responding well to heavy physical activity. By inducing this ‘boosted’ state, these athletes can get their blood pressure and heart rates elevated such that their body is prepared to perform under extreme physical stress.
Well, the IPC is not having any of it. The competition limit for an athelete’s systolic blood pressure has been brought down to 160 mm/hg as compared to the 180 mm/hg it was previously. These numbers already sound ridiculously high, and as we high blood pressure sufferers already know, this stuff can cause real, lasting harm if allowed to continue unchecked. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the goals of a Paralympian, however. Imagine you’ve suffered this horrible injury, and then you’ve picked yourself up, rehabilitated for so long just to get back to a relatively normal life, trained hard for (at least) 4 years, and this now you’re here, you’re in RIO (!), this is your moment, an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime. Would you let a few minutes of dangerously high blood pressure hold you back from giving it everything you got?