Prosthetic Arms Have Room for Improvement

Advances in lower-limb prosthetics in recent years have been nothing short of remarkable, as double-amputee Oscar Pistorius proved at the Olympic Games in London this past summer. But upper limb prosthetics still have a ways to go. While nearly all lower-limb amputees choose to use prosthetics, almost half of upper-limb amputees forgo them, according to a recent article in the New York Times. 

"Learning to Accept, and Master, a $100,000 Mechanical Arm," is the latest installment in the paper's "The Hard Road Back" series, which chronicles the struggles of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The story focuses on Corporal Sebastian Gallegos's difficulties in adjusting to the robotic arm that has replaced the right arm he lost in an explosion in Afghanistan.

For medical device designers, it also provides insights into the experience of a patient using their products. The story tells how Gallegos, who underwent targetted muscle reinnervation surgery to improve his ability to use the prosthetic arm, struggles to use the device. He must perform exhausting "mental gymnastics" to control the prosthetic, is embarassed by its sounds and appearance, and is frustrated by his inability to perform simple tasks such as tying his shoes or helping his wife put togehter furniture. He even broke one of his prosthetics while surfing.

Though upper-limb prosthetics such as the Pentagon's DEKA Arm (see video below) are making strides, there's clearly an opportunity to create a better prosthetic arm. Is the industry up to the challenge? 

Jamie Hartford is the managing editor of MD+DI