Medical Plastic and the Evolving Technology of the Artificial Limb

Plastic has revolutionised medical technology. This week we take a look at the history of artificial limbs: examining what was available before plastic came along, seeing how plastic improved the technology immeasurably and taking a look at how the science of prosthesis may develop in the future.

Medical Plastic

The History of Prosthetics

Artificial limbs woven from fibres have been discovered in the tombs of the ancient Egyptians. These early prosthetics would not have had any function (for example, a false leg constructed from this material wouldn't have aided walking) but they would have had the important psychological effect of imparting a feeling of 'wholeness' on the wearer.

Pliny the Elder is one of the more respectable sources of Roman history. He wrote his history of the Second Punic War some two hundred years after it occurred. In his account, one Roman general who lost an arm had a replacement forged of iron so that he was able to hold a shield.

The peg leg and the hook familiar to us from pirate stories were actually the dominant forms of prosthesis for most of the Dark Ages. By the time of the golden age of piracy romanced in the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson there had been many advances in the technology of prosthetics. Perhaps if Long John Silver had got his treasure, he may have invested in an upgrade for his peg. However, the technology still relied on wood, copper and iron. The real advances came with the development of plastic.

Prosthetics and the Plastic Revolution

Plastic is lightweight, mouldable and can come in any colour, so perhaps its main advantage is something that the ancient Egyptians understood: as it can look and feel similar to a real limb, a plastic prosthesis can impart on the wearer a sense of 'wholeness' that is important for psychological wellbeing. Composite prosthetics combine the strength of aluminium with these properties of plastic to provide the user with a limb that is functional (e.g. a weight-bearing leg) and aesthetically similar to the missing limb. Perhaps the most famous plastic prosthetic limb in recent years was the one that got thrown across the room in a memorable episode of The Real Housewives of New York.

The Future of Prosthetics

The holy grail of prosthetic technology is an artificial limb that restores the functionality that has been lost since amputation. This means mimicking all possible movements of the missing limb and even the development of prosthetics that can receive instructions directly from the brain. Incredibly, large steps towards this dream have already been taken and a lot of the problems overcome. Plastic will continue to play a big part in this developing field.

We will be talking all things medical plastic at the Med-Tech Innovation Exposition on Wednesday 20th and Thursday 21st of April at Coventry's Ricoh Arena. Catch us at stand number 29.

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