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Surgery rehabilitation and prosthetics – 40 years of advancement

This month, Hodge Jones & Allen celebrated its 40th birthday. In the 40 years since the firm opened its doors, technology to assist people with life changing amputation injuries has moved from the realms of science fiction (think Luke Skywalker’s robotic arm in the Star Wars franchise, coincidentally also turning 40 this year) into a real possibility with trials for a similar device currently being undertaken in the NHS.

Over the past 40 years the development and refinement of new and more lightweight materials such as plastic, polycarbonates and laminates have replaced the traditional materials of leather and wood in the building of prosthetics and synthetic sockets have been developed to offer each individual patient a comfortable fit.

Development of prosthetics

In the last 20 years alone prosthetics have become more specialised in include the development of high-performance lightweight running blades, prosthetic legs and feet which can sense and adapt to different terrains and motorised hand prosthetics which are controlled by sensors and microprocessors. Another development includes the C-Brace which is a custom electronic leg brace for those with a spinal cord injury. The C-Brace is a computer controlled knee ankle foot orthosis (KAFO) which enables the user to walk more easily and requires less concentration whilst allow a more natural movement to occur.

There have also been significant developments in the field of osseointegration over the last 40 years. This is the process in which a titanium implant is surgically implanted into a bone which eliminates the need for traditional socket based prosthetics and allows the user to take the limb on or off in less than 10 seconds. This aims to provide amputees with greater mobility, comfort and quality of life.

The developments in technology to assist amputees is constantly moving forward with individually made 3D-printed prosthetics and customised running blades made from 80 layers of carbon fibre used by athletes at last year’s Paralympics in Rio as well as researchers in the US developing and trialling brain-computer interface technology which uses surgically implanted electrodes to send signals from the brain to the prosthetic limb.

Changes in attitudes and expectations for amputees

However, it is not just the technology which has developed over the last 40 years; it is also attitudes and expectations. Alan Tanner, a Consultant Prosthetist speaking in 2010 said, when he first entered the field 40 years earlier it was ‘just assumed they [amputees] would not be able to do sport’ and therefore there was no demand for advanced prosthetics. Now he points to a growth in expectation which has driven the field of prosthetics to adapt to allow amputees to achieve their own personal goals whether that is to run, swim, climb mountains or simply to walk across a room unaided.

Evidence of this shift in expectation is the massive growth of the Paralympic sport in recent years. Today, the Paralympic games are the world’s 3rd biggest sporting event in terms of ticket sales (with only the Olympic Games and the football World Cup selling more) and TV audiences have grown from a cumulative 300 million in 2000 to more than 4.1 billion for the games in Rio in 2016. Furthermore, funding for Paralympic sport has increased by six times since 2002 to a total of £72,786,652 for the Rio games.

Jonnie Peacock, the Paralympic sprinter will this year become the first disabled contestant on Strictly Come Dancing’s main Saturday night show. In a recent interview he has said that the appearance of a disabled celebrity on the show is a “massive step forward”.

In the words of Sir Douglas Barder, an RAF pilot and double amputee “to my way of thinking, a disabled man who has achieved independence is no longer disabled” and with the continued advances in surgery, rehabilitation and prosthetics there is hope for amputees that in another 40 years this may be a reality.