The Evolution of Prosthetics

Prosthetics have been around for centuries, all the way back to the earliest known prosthetic body part, a big toe.

Dating back to Ancient Egypt, it is thought to have given the wearer a pleasing aesthetic, in addition to some added functionality. The visions that have materialized since then are nothing short of astonishing, coming from the wooden peg leg, to being able to give a paralyzed man the ability to feel again. All these improvements and inventions come down to the progression of the technology we now have available to us, and the extraordinary minds that dream up innovative ways to change people’s lives.

This article will focus on the recent progression made within the Prosthetic industry; the study of biomechanics, Internet of Things (IoT), and the introduction of new materials.

When thinking of prosthetics, artificial legs and arms are what comes to mind,  but we must also consider new developments like bionic eyes. A company called Second Sight has created a Retinal Prosthesis System. This system has the capability of restoring vision, allowing individuals to complete visual tasks. The technology can easily be upgraded, both hardware and software, to keep up with future developments. Advancements such as these are providing opportunities to people who previously would have not had a solution even close to this.

Biomechanics

Biomechanics is essentially the study of the way in which humans move. These findings are particularly important to the evolution of prosthetics as it aids in the creation of artificial limbs that can replicate human movement, to give the utmost comfort and functionality to the wearer. This aspect is imperative when producing artificial limbs. For example, some prosthetics are controlled with the use of myoelectrics. Myoelectric prosthesis is the connection of muscles to the artificial limb; with the use of sensors this can allow the individual to perform a variety of actions. However in recent years biomechanics has had many breakthroughs; movement ability has progressed and an individual can experience a prosthesis with the sensation of physical touch. This is a tremendous accomplishment, as for years progress has been largely focused on mobility. Endolite, one of the oldest manufactures of prosthetics, and an organisation that focuses on breakthrough technologies for national security, is laying the foundations for near-natural prosthetics. The connection of the sensory cortex to the prosthesis limb completed by DARPA is one of the latest developments, and claims to offer real benefits to those who have lost limbs or suffer from paralysis. This technology could eventually allow individuals to manipulate and identify objects, giving them near normal sensation.

Internet of Things and Prosthetics

IoT is already well-established in industry and is becoming a feature in cars, in the home, and in healthcare provision. For prosthetics, however, IoT is a fairly new development. In 2007, Bluetooth was one of the first IoT technologies to be implemented within the prosthetic industry, when Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bliell was fitted with Bluetooth-enabled prosthetic legs. The benefits of this new way of combining prosthetics and technology are plentiful. A Bluetooth element can help control the pressure, speed and stride of a prosthetic leg, and assist each wearer in an individual way, allowing for more comfort and longer wearability. One manufacturer of these Bluetooth-enabled prosthetics is Ottobock. Ottobock aims to “restore and improve independence for people with mobility challenges.” Not only does IoT in prosthetics give the device itself added benefit, but it can also make the wearer aware of any issues that arise with the artificial limb before these might cause severe pain, or permanent defects to the device.

Introduction of New Materials

A prosthetist has the difficult task of designing a functional, durable, and comfortable device. An important factor in this is material. Traditional materials for prosthetics include wood, steel, and leather; think of devices like the ‘peg leg’ or hooked metal hands. As prosthetics evolved so did the materials used. By the 17th century the introduction of leather and precious metals had changed the possibilities of these artificial limbs, providing stronger artificial joints with greater mobility. Now devices are getting lighter and stronger with the use of titanium, carbon fiber, and plastic. The many benefits of using these types of materials include better stability, improved energy return, and improved dexterity. The introduction of these materials could also reduce manufacturing costs. In some respects this is leading to more affordable but just as effective prosthetics. In 2015, Troy Baverstock, a student at Griffith University in Australia, made the ‘limbU’, an add-on for prosthetics that is packed with sensors, such as motion sensors, to help guide rehabilitation. The sensors, all made with a 3D printer, include Bluetooth and GPS to help keep track of progression.

“In my case (spinal injury), I think technology will lead the way to improving mobility, well before medical science finds a cure.” – Billy, Matchbox.

The implementation of IoT, new materials, and the improvements of biomechanics have certainly improved their functions. Research and developments have made such huge progressions in the last decade alone, and show no signs of slowing down. What remains to be seen is how prosthetics wearers, technology providers, and healthcare providers can find the right balance between innovation, control, ownership, and affordability.