NATIONAL HARBOR. Md. — He sprints to the cone, pivots tight as a pin 90 degrees to the right and he’s off again. He churns his heels into the ground and pumps his arms as he races to the next cone, then drops to the ground and pumps out a dozen or so pushups before he’s up and running again.
The runner looks like a five-star football recruit trying out for the NFL, not a wounded warrior showing off his new ankle. But thanks to revolutionary advances in prosthetics, the Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran was declared fit for duty and returned to service.
He’s just one of the many success stories shared in videos at the “Revolution in Prosthetics” session Jan. 31, 2012 during the Military Health System Conference held from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2 at the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center at National Harbor, Md. Civilian researchers and Army physicians gathered at the sessions to discuss the progress and future of prosthetics for wounded warriors.
Mike McCoughlin, program manager at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, or APL, described the Modular Prosthetic Limb, developed by the APL and almost 30 other organizations. The arm, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics project, has 26 degrees of freedom and near human-like dexterity. It allows wearers to shovel snow, throw a ball, golf, put on a sock, play the trumpet, carry heavy bags and even cook.
“The ability to turn the wrist 180 degrees really gets their attention,” said McCoughlin, as the video showed an amputee deftly dumping a cup of flour into a bowl.
Recent developments with the arm include “neural integration,” using small surgically implanted wireless devices — allowing the user to directly control the arm with his or her thoughts, just like a real arm. The arm is currently moving through the FDA approval process.
It enabled one amputee to reach out and hold the hand of his girlfriend for the first time in seven years since his motorcycle crash.
The researchers have also made great strides developing braces for patients with functional limb loss, like a fused ankle — including better generation of power and shock absorption. The devices turn limpers into runners, joggers into sprinters and even allow some wounded service members to return to active duty.
“Published literature says you can’t run with a fused ankle, but these guys prove us wrong,” said Col. James Ficke, chairman of Brooke Army Medical Center, or BAMC, Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. “It’s not the brace, it’s the human attached to the brace.”
The presenters also emphasized the success of amputation versus limb salvage. Twenty-two percent of amputees return to duty and experience less emotional distress than limb salvage patients. Thanks to a revolution in prosthetics, patients have better outcomes with amputation as opposed to reconstruction.
Ficke also highlighted the camaraderie and competitiveness of amputees, burn victims and other disabled veterans at the Center for the Intrepid, BAMC’s premiere research and rehabilitation center for Wounded Warriors.
“The (San Antonio) Spurs come to play wheelchair basketball with the patients and they stay until they win a game,” he said.
For every 30 service members returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, one is an amputee. Just since Jan. 1, 1,421 amputees have returned.
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s goal is to create a fully functioning, in terms of both motor and sensory abilities, upper limb that responds to direct neural control within the next decade.