High-Tech Prosthetics for Soldiers
Technology and design have advanced the capabilities of people with amputations.
Replacement hands can be fitted with connections to nerve endings in biceps and triceps, making it possible to control hand grips by clenching and relaxing muscles. Replacement feet designed for running, climbing, and walking enable soldiers to regain critical functions for daily life, and, in some cases, return to active duty.
Like those who battled thousands of years ago, today’s soldiers continue to inspire the development of new solutions to the ancient problem of replacing lost limbs.
Need for Wholeness
Cave paintings from ancient cultures and stories written in ancient languages document early evidence of amputations and attempts at creating prosthetics. Throughout history, losing limbs has left people searching for replacements for 3 key reasons:
- A sense of wholeness
Egyptians, Grecians, and Romans constructed the first well-documented prostheses for warriors injured in battle, as well as for those born with deformities. Modern day design and technology, to a large degree, still follow the efficient principles set out by those historic cultures, who portrayed amputees not only in society’s midst but also among god-like creatures. For generations, basic peg legs and hand hooks dominated the options for amputees, including soldiers.
The beginning of the Industrial Revolution fueled the development of more refined prosthetic devices. Meanwhile, the US government’s funding of prosthetics for all soldiers who lost limbs in the Civil War—30,000 in the Union Army alone—gave rise to a new generation of entrepreneurs. Updated designs were consistently being created, including limbs with independently moving joints, springs, and rubber feet.
Since the earliest recorded stories of battle, the challenges of creating effective prosthetics brought together disparate experts. In the Dark Ages, craftsmen who built armor also shaped artificial limbs made of metal. Woodworkers created lighter prosthetic devices designed for the relatively few survivors of major trauma.
Many advances came from the ingenuity of wounded soldiers themselves. The first aluminum prosthesis, for example, was constructed by English aviator Marcel Desoutter, an amputee who sought design help from his brother, an aeronautical engineer. And in 1946, after increased US injuries in World War II, the Surgeon General supported the creation of the professional organization now known as the American Orthotics and Prosthetics Association, which develops standards, educational programs, and important relationships between doctors.
As the military spared no expense in ensuring the best quality of life for injured soldiers, universities around the country took on the challenge of building better prosthetics. In addition, the Veterans Administration helped launch the Artificial Limb Program, which established research labs responsible for improved socket design, better materials, and more advanced prosthetic joints, including knees.
Varied Risk Factors
While soldiers remain the highest profile recipients of high-tech prosthetics, they represented only a fraction of the more than 2 million Americans living without limbs. In addition to trauma, amputations
can be done for:
Still, much technological development remains focused on replacement limbs for soldiers, in part because of the relative youth of these men and because they want to get back to work.
At facilities, such as the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, amputees work with a team of specialists, including surgeons and psychiatrists, who help them transition both physically and emotionally into new lives.
Computer imaging allows doctors to create custom-made plastic sockets that attach onto existing limbs perfectly. Battery-powered graphite and titanium artificial legs include built-in microprocessors, or tiny computers, that give patients more control over their stride. One of the models, the “C-leg,” features computerized sensors to adjust stride speed almost immediately.
Modern prosthetic arms and hands look more natural and function more naturally, with fast-moving electric models that allow for gripping and grabbing.
As researchers continue to improve and upgrade prosthetic devices, people continue to gain more control and flexibility, along with an ever-expanding list of special options.
Despite all of the technological advances, the single most important factor in effective use of prosthetics is how well the artificial limb can be made to fit. No amount of computer technology can replace a well-designed socket connecting what remains of the real limb with the artificial one. This process is highly dependent on expert skill in prosthetics and physical therapy/rehabilitation.
Because of the wide range of prosthetic devices available, amputees need to be well-informed about their options. Often, the choice between battery-powered or body-powered devices and specific limb styles and materials depends on variables like:
- Level of amputation
- Activity level
- Types of desired activities
Despite technology, adjusting to life without a limb, or limbs, remains physically and psychologically exhausting. Still, countless families and loved ones value having soldiers not only home, but able to live relatively free of the burdens that perpetually plagued amputees in the past: pain, embarrassment/conspicuousness, and long-term limitations.
American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists
National Amputation Foundation
The War Amps
Amputees fight caps in coverage for prostheses. Amputee Coalition of America website. Available at: http://www.amputee-coalition.org/absolutenm/anmviewer.asp?a=825. Published June 9, 2008. Accessed October 9, 2014.
Hutchinson DT. The quest for the bionic arm. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2014;22(6):346-351.
Lake C, Dodson R.
Progressive upper limb prosthetics.
Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am.
Marks LJ, Michael JW. Science, medicine, and the future: Artificial limbs.
British Medical Journal.
McGuigan FX, Forsberg JA, Andersen RC.
Foot and ankle reconstruction after blast injuries.
Foot Ankle Clin.
Norton K. A brief history of prosthetics. inMotion. 2007;17(7). Available at: http://www.amputee-coalition.org/inmotion/nov%5Fdec%5F07/history%5Fprosthetics.html. Accessed October 9, 2014.
Resources for recent amputees. Amputee Coalition website. Available at: http://www.amputee-coalition.org/limb-loss-resource-center/resources-for-specific-groups/recent-amputees/index.html. Accessed October 9, 2014.