Iraq War Drives Advances in Prosthetic Limbs

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 25, 2009 | Go to article overview

Iraq War Drives Advances in Prosthetic Limbs


Byline: Mark Roth Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The horrors of war have often led to medical benefits in peacetime.

The Civil War spread the use of anesthesia. World War II helped to start the antibiotics revolution.

And now, the Iraq war and its deadly roadside bombs are advancing the development of prosthetics for those who have lost limbs.

So far, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left roughly 1,000 U.S. soldiers with amputations. The vast majority have lost feet and legs, but about 200 soldiers have lost fingers, hands and arms, said Ryan Blanck, upper-extremity specialist at the U.S. Armys Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, a $65 million facility dedicated to treatment of amputees and burn victims.

The preponderance of leg injuries in the military is related to the nature of improved explosive devices and the injuries they inflict,

but it also echoes figures from civilian life.

There are about 130,000 amputations in the United States each year. More than 80 percent involve legs, feet and toes, mostly from circulation problems caused by diabetes.

Finger, hand and arm amputations largely are the results of accidents, and mostly affect young men like those in the military. In addition, children born without hands or arms need prosthetics, said Dr. Joseph Imbriglia of the Wexford, Pa.-based Hand and UpperEx Center.

The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have advanced the science of prosthetics by providing an unfortunate pool of amputees whom the government wants to help, Blanck said. Those young men want prosthetics that will allow them to live full, active lives.

Some upper-extremity amputees want to use their prostheses to lift weights. Some want to do push-ups. And some even want prostheses that will allow them to fire weapons, in hopes of going back to a combat zone.

As a result, he said, many soldiers often use both the older harness-style hook prostheses, which provide greater lifting power and are more durable in outdoor weather, and newer myoelectric ones, which are superior for some fine motor movements and operate from electrical signals emitted by the muscles of the persons remaining limb.

The Center for the Intrepid has also become a natural testing bed for prosthetic prototypes, like the new iLimb artificial hands and arms made by Touch Bionics, of Scotland. …

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