Some of the most exciting prosthetics have made it to market recently. Here’s a look at how technology has brought the industry to where it is and what’s to come.
The use of prosthetic technology can be traced back to about 3,000 years ago in Egypt, where archaeologists found a carved wooden toe attached to a piece of leather that could be fitted onto a foot, according to Geoff Brumfiel of the Smithsonian Magazine. It was not until the 16th century, when Ambroise Pare, a French battlefield surgeon, invented the first functional mechanical limb—a hand with flexible fingers operated by catches and springs.
Prosthetic technology has come a long way since then, thriving specifically during times of war. The U.S. Civil War and World War I lead to over 60,000 amputations.
“You can find major innovations after every period of war and conflict,” said Hugh Herr, Associate Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are no exception, with around 1,800 U.S. soldiers requiring amputation. Brumfiel reported that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency put around $144 million toward prosthetic research. The funds will go toward the advancement of an already thriving industry, due in large part to how far prosthetic technology has come.
Advancements in Prosthetic Technology
Because of the advancement in prosthetic technology, organizations such as RePurpose For Good are able to focus efforts on designing and manufacturing reusable prosthetics from recycled plastic.
“The time is ripe for these technological advances to benefit the industry and the lives of prosthetic users,” said Gerardo Montoya, Mechatronics Engineer at Repurpose For Good.
One of the advances Montoya is referring to is the organization’s development of a process that uses 3D printing to turn recycled plastics into customized prosthetics: a game changer for an industry that has generally followed the one-size-fits-all approach when fitting a prosthetic to a patient.
“This one-size-fits-all approach tries to mould the user to the prosthesis, sometimes resulting in invasive surgery,” he adds. “A lot of current prostheses on the market are impractical, expensive, non-ergonomic, and at times, painful for the user.”
While RePurpose For Good continues their efforts to address this need, there remains a great need for further research of prosthetic technology.
Researching New Prosthetics
According to Wich-50,“[eleven] million children and adults globally face a life without a hand, arm, foot, or leg due to war, diabetes, cancer, and trauma,” and as a result, now more than ever before research is essential for the advancement of prosthetic technology.
Leading the way to the future of bionic and prosthetic technology is Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics. The company provides the latest innovation to its patients through their direct access to the most progressive technology on the market, which they achieve by working directly with manufacturers.
Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics offers some of the most exciting and coolest prosthetics in the market, such as the BiOM Ankle System from iWalk, which is designed to increase mobility with propulsion technology, while reducing energy demands and stress on the body.
The research and development of prosthetics is a process that requires participants to test their models. This means the company’s patients and amputee staff members are often asked to beta-test new components. It’s through the relationships between companies and their manufacturers that the industry can effectively make progress in regards to researching prosthetic technology.
Exciting Prosthetics of the Present and Future
The Power Knee from Ossur is a prosthetic motor-powered knee that provides symmetry, endurance, and strength to its user. Then there is the Symbionic Leg, also from Ossur, which combines the Proprio powered ankle and the Rheo microprocessor knee to create a bionic leg system.
As for the future of prosthetic technology, companies such as Touch Bionics are making huge advancements with products such as the i-limb, a bionic hand where each finger has its own motor. Inside the forearm are two electrodes that respond to muscular signals in the residual limb. Sending a signal to one of the electrodes opens the hand while the other closes it.
The i-limb can be programmed remotely, through a small computer with a menu of preset grip configurations. Its most recent iteration takes things a step further by offering a smartphone app that gives users access to a menu of 24 different preset grips.
Prosthetics like this have been achieved through improved software, longer lasting batteries, and smaller, more power-efficient microprocessors, all of which are ushering in a new era in prosthetic technology and bionics.
Researchers have also developed functioning prototypes of artificial organs such as the lungs, spleen, or pancreas. Additionally, an experimental implant that wires the brain to a computer may be the key to giving quadriplegics control over their artificial limbs.
Such was the case with 58-year-old Cathy Hutchinson, a quadriplegic who in 2011, was able to pick up a bottle and lift it to her mouth to drink thanks to researchers at Brown University. This was achieved by connecting the robotic arm into Hutchinson’s neural network.
The fact that the brain is able to take part in the use of bionics and prosthetic technology makes for a promising future.
“There will come a time when a person has a stroke and if we can’t repair it biologically, there will be an option to get a technology that will rewire their brain,” said John Donoghue, Neuroscience Professor at Brown University.
Cool Technology in Prosthetics
Last year, Zac Vawter climbed 103 flights of stairs while wearing a prosthetic leg that was connected to his brain and communicated with the mechanical leg through his nerves. This breakthrough achievement has been the most advanced in lower limb prosthetic technology. As if that does not sound cool enough, a recent publication in the New England Journal of Medicine is taking the leg’s capabilities even further, allowing amputees to control range movements.
Prosthetic technology has made such advancements in recent years that even experts like Dr. Levi Hargrove, Lead Researcher at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, are surprised.
“Five years ago I thought there was no way to achieve all that we’ve achieved,” he said. “I thought it would take 10 years to get to where we are now.”
With prosthetic technology advancing, one can only wonder where things are headed next. Especially since engineers in London are assembling a structure named the Bionic Man out of prosthetics and artificial organs from around the world.
“This is where prosthetic limbs will go,” said Steven Reincke, EVP of Research and Development of Freedom Innovations. “Right now people have a sophisticated support system. The goal is to mirror the natural body as much as possible.”