Understanding bionic devices, elective amputation, and the future of artificial limbs
By Michael Pines, Accident & Injury Prevention Expert
When it comes to prosthetic devices, amputees expect artificial limbs to look good, function well, and perform just as nature would have intended.
Now more than ever, amputees are adapting to sophisticated technology called “bionic” devices. These complex prosthetics use a combination of motors, natural-looking skins, and microchips to achieve the most natural and comfortable feel. Lifelike devices are the preferred choice for most amputees, but not without a considerable downside. That’s because most amputees must undergo elective amputation to remove more of their natural limb in order to wear a bionic device.
Undergoing elective amputation is an unorthodox approach considering so many amputees want to salvage their natural limb as much as possible. But as one amputee describes, the effort to accommodate a bionic limb was well worth it.
“The last couple of years, boy, my life started closing in on me because I couldn’t run anymore,” said Dr. Tom White, 51, in an article titled “A Once-Unthinkable Choice for Amputees” published at the New York Times in May 2012. White, a family physician in Buena Vista, Colo., suffered a severe foot injury after getting into a motorcycle accident nearly 30 years ago. Even though doctors salvaged his foot, arthritis began affecting his fused joints. “It got so that doing something like taking a hike wasn’t fun anymore because it hurt too much.”
Dr. White chose elective amputation which removed his entire leg from below the knee. But the surgery allowed him to wear a bionic device.
“I could have a chance to get back to my life,” he explained. “It just dawned on me — the technology is amazing, and I would be better off.”
The future of bionic devices
Doctors and researchers are working to build artificial limbs that can eventually be controlled by the brain. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University are developing technology that would allow electrodes and peripheral nerves to communicate with computers housed in artificial limbs. Sophisticated communication between man and machine could result in natural motion.
Called “neuroprosethics,” this new kind of research in prosthesis aims to combine mind, body, and robotics into one synthesized unit. “Biohybrid limbs” promise tissue engineering to complement robotic movement.
“Some breakthroughs may blur the distinction between biological and non-biological,” explains Dr. Roy Aaron, an orthopedic surgeon at the Providence VA Medical Center.
Dr. Herr, a professor at MIT who suffered the loss of both feet, explains that next-generation prosthetics offer ease of motion because bionic devices will sense actions before they happen, allowing the wearer to walk normally. Microprocessors will work like calf muscles and Achilles tendons to simulate the most natural movements possible, resulting in unparalleled simplicity and comfort for the amputee.
“These systems have to know how to walk,” says Herr.
“We need to have the amputee’s brain control the artificial knee, to tell the knee that they intend to turn left or right, or that there are stairs up ahead. Amputees will be able to traverse greater distances with less fatigue. Artificial joints will be able to move like a biological joint,” he added.
Even though researchers are still years away from launching a brain-powered artificial limb, existing technology in prosthetic development has already given amputees hope and optimism.
“I don’t feel ugly anymore,” Dr. White told the New York Times. “I feel like a normal guy.”
About Michael Pines
Michael Pines is a personal injury attorney at the Law Offices of Michael Pines, APC in San Diego, California. He is an accident and injury prevention expert in San Diego and on a campaign to end senseless injury one article at a time.
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