May 16, 2012
Biomedical engineering research and development has become so sophisticated over the past decade that the latest prosthetic technologies are providing amputees with unprecedented functionality and mobility.
Though scientists have designed prosthetic and orthotic devices for the better part of the past 200 years, they have made startling progress over the past decade. In the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there has been a jump in the number of soldiers suffering injuries that have required the amputation of an extremity. With the ranks of such patients growing, scientists have centered their efforts on restoring full range of motion.
The New York Times reports that for some, however, the latest and most effective prosthetics may sometimes present a quandary. This, scientists say, is because although advances in engineering research have undoubtedly spurred a wave of innovation within the field, a number of such models require the removal of an entire limb.
For patients who have only had a part of an extremity removed, the decision can be daunting. However, for those suffering from phantom limb pain or hoping to improve the very quality of their lives, the choice is simple.
Ann Kornhauser, a New York native who lost a part of her foot because of a tumor, was willing to have her leg amputated below the knee to receive an artificial limb. Kormnhauser told the Times that following surgery to remove her left leg, she was outfitted with one of the novel prosthetics, a model that is so intricately engineered its distinctiveness often goes unnoticed.
Artificial limbs have come a long way over the past few centuries. The Clapper Leg, also known as the Anglesea, was one of the first known examples of the prosthetic, according to Blatchford, which engineers and manufactures orthotics and prosthetic devices. Originally developed for the First Marquess of Angelsea in 1816 after he lost a limb in the Battle of Waterloo, the Clapper Leg earned its nickname because of the sound it made when fully extended.
Today's prosthetics are tied into the very circuitry of the human body, allowing for complex and subtle movements. The carbon fiber blades worn by Oscar Pistorius on both his legs, for instance, have enabled the South African to pursue a professional running career, one that could continue this summer at the London Olympics. While his inherent athleticism has obviously played a major role in his success, the carefully designed prosthetic limbs have given him and others opportunities that would not have been possible even two decades ago.
Bionic prosthetics utilize microchips and other components to help mimic the sensation of movement. According to MIT Media Lab biomechanatronics researcher Hugh Herr, though amputees can opt for lifelike models, many have embraced designs that emphasize such devices' singularity.
"They want it to look interesting and have a machine beauty," Herr said.
Moreover, researchers contend that new prosthetics are so effective that they have sparked the interest of unconventional patients. While medical practitioners have long sought to forgo amputating a limb or other body part unless the procedure could save a person's life, new models are opening up a new world of possibilities. In lieu of painful follow-up surgeries and lingering pain, some patients are opting for bionic replacements, according to the Times.
While such cases remain the exception, engineers are confident that continued advances could one day make it virtually impossible to discern between an actual limb and a bionic one.