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Technological Breakthroughs in Prosthetics

Getting fitted for a prosthesis can be a difficult, sometimes uncomfortable experience, and it means, of course, that an individual has lost a limb that needs to be replaced. Currently, patients must wait for an artificial limb until after their amputation is complete, the area around the wound has healed and the swelling has subsided. A prosthetist then measures the area in order to create a properly fitted replacement limb. This process can take several visits, as adjustments may need to be made to the prosthesis.

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Another drawback is that a prosthesis may not last as long as someone might imagine. The average replacement appendage lasts about three years with minor repairs and maintenance, according to a non-profit organization, the Amputee Coalition. An amputee also needs assistance from physical therapists to learn how to operate the new limb, which typically doesn't work as naturally as the missing appendage.

Connecting artificial limbs to skeleton

Diverse members of society need to be fitted with prosthetic devices, for example, military service people returning from combat tours. Dr. Sarina Sinclair is the project manager of a new set of trials to attach prostheses. She said that for many individuals who are missing appendages, the traditional methods of attaching a new limb are not comfortable. "They just don't have that function and quality of life to be able to move freely."

Sinclair and other doctors at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center have developed a new method that they hope could help grant patients with prosthetics greater freedom of movement. The prostheses that they test are attached in a two-step surgical process. The first surgery involves the insertion of a titanium rod into the left-over bone. The second surgery is for the insertion of a post that protrudes from the skin where the missing limb would normally be. This is where the prosthesis is attached.

Dr. Lawrence Meyer, the chief researcher for this technology, said that "This is going to be able to give people a solid connection, where otherwise it would be teetering on top of something that's loose, standing on a chair with an unequal leg."

While the procedure is still in the study phase in the U.S, it has been done in Africa, Australia and Europe for many years already. Delays stem partly from the regulatory process and also concerns about possible infections. Researchers have come up with a barrier for a patient's skin to help prevent infections during the surgeries, and afterward during recovery. Work on these prosthetic methods is moving forward, with patient screenings set for the summer of 2013 to find the first participants for the clinical trials.

Connecting to smartphones or the nervous system

A bionic replacement leg is being developed by the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital's Motion Analysis Lab along with Hugh Herr, an MIT inventor. Sensors on an amputee's body can monitor a person's natural gait, which is captured by 10 different cameras. This data is analyzed by a computer, which creates a stick figure facsimile of the patient's motion. This information could help researchers create and customize prosthetics for patients. This customization to each individual’s natural motion enables the prosthetic to be more stable and comfortable to operate. The newest model of the artificial limb can even be synced up to a smartphone for remote fine-tuning.

An engineer for the Motion Analysis Lab, Giacomo Severini, is excited about the project. "We can evaluate how much power every joint is generating in every direction." He added, "This proesthesis is active, so it generates power, and this allows the prosthesis to behave like a normal ankle."

The government is also exploring innovations in replacement limbs. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), with civilian help, is building a prosthesis that users can control with impulses from their brain. A flat interface nerve electrode (FINE) exposes more of the nerve so that electrodes can interact with it better. These electrodes are attached so that the prosthesis can operate similar to a normal limb. This type of neural connection is called targeted muscle re-innervation, and lets existing muscles move the limb when attached to the body. FINE also lets users "feel" whatever they are holding in their replacement limb, which could eliminate the need for individuals to see what it is they are trying to grab.

A future full of biomedical innovations

If you're interested in helping those who have lost limbs, you can explore a wide range of professions, from physical therapy assistants to medical researchers to computer engineers. For example, licensed practical nurses change wound dressings and monitor the healing process of amputees. Biomedical equipment technicians may specialize in orthopedics and focus on adjusting and maintaining medical devices, which could include artificial limbs.

For the wounded soldiers who are returning home, these innovations in prosthetics may be a quantum leap forward. While these next-generation technologies may not serve to fully replace the lost limb, and may also never bring about a complete feeling of normalcy, they could possibly serve to make life a little easier. Having replacement limbs that operate more like the arms and legs of "able-bodied" individuals might remove some of the stigma of being disabled, in addition to enhancing the everyday mechanics of life for someone missing an appendage.

About the Author:

Jamar Ramos has been writing poetry and fiction for many years, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. For the last three years, Mr. Ramos switched to producing blog posts for CBSSports.com and writing professionally as an independent contributor for a number of Internet sites. His creative works have been featured in The Bohemian and The San Matean. He now contributes articles for OnlineDegrees.com, OnlineColleges.com, and AlliedHealthWorld.com.