3D Printing Helps Injured Veterans Do the Things They Love Again

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When a person loses a limb, the trauma and grief include the fear that they’ll never again be able to do the things that they loved to do before. Even if they can afford a good prosthetic, it’s hard to match a natural limb when it comes to the variety of tasks that can be performed. From shooting a basketball to drinking a cup of tea, there are a vast range of things we can do with our hands that we don’t even think about until we’ve lost one. Most of us will go through our lives taking these things for granted, but a soldier coming back from battle missing one or more limbs suddenly has to wonder how he or she will accomplish thousands of things that previously came with ease.

The 3D Medical Applications Center (3DMAC) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is dedicated to the use of 3D printing for medical purposes, particularly for injured veterans. Its service include 3D printed medical models, surgical guides and implants, and it has also taken on another task – that of providing specialized 3D printed prosthetic attachments for veterans who have lost limbs. These veterans typically already have prosthetic devices, but are looking for something more specialized that will help them with something specific – something their ordinary prosthetic may not be that well-suited for.

For example, one veteran wanted to be able to hold a fishing rod, while another wanted his ice skates to fit tightly on his prosthetic feet so that he could benefit from the sensory feedback he had received before. Another veteran wanted to be able to walk around the hotel pool on his honeymoon without putting on his full prosthetic legs. 3DMAC took care of all of those requests and more.

“We’ve made more than 100 unique devices to enable activities that able-bodied people often take for granted,” said Peter Liacouras, 3DMAC Director of Services.

Peter Liacouras

The first assistive device they made was in 2002, making a pair of what are called “shorty feet” for the veteran going on his honeymoon.

“Wearing full prosthetic legs can be cumbersome and also, the full prosthesis for pool wear are very expensive and not necessarily 100 percent waterproof,” Liacouras said.

The 3DMAC team used CAD software to design the smaller prosthetics, then 3D printed a plastic prototype before making the final versions from titanium alloy.

“They attach to sockets that attach to the stumps,” Liacouras said. “Think of it like walking on your knees.”

3DMAC has produced more than 70 pairs of shorty feet so far. Veterans with missing legs like to use them if they have to get up after going to bed, for example, or to be able to play with their kids at their level. Physical therapists use them to help patients get comfortable with getting up and moving again.

Craniofacial reconstruction is part of the services offered by 3DMAC. [Image: 3DMAC]

In addition to using 3D printing to create models and implants, as well as prosthetic attachments, 3DMAC also uses the technology to train future medical and dental professionals, as well as for research projects. One research project includes 3D mapping the human face to create a digital archive of facial anatomy. This archive could then be used to create implants for facial reconstruction if a soldier became disfigured in a blast.

“The face is the most complicated region to reconstruct and, of course, it’s what everyone sees every day,” Liacouras said.

Even with all the research and critical care being performed by the center, prosthetic attachments are still a priority. Being able to do the things they always did plays a big role in both physical and emotional recovery for those who have lost limbs, according to experts, so 3DMAC is more than willing to help. Whenever a request comes in from the Defense Department or Department of Veterans Affairs health care providers, Liacouras will first search online to see if the device already exists and can be adapted. If not, they’ll design a new custom device and 3D print it from plastic or titanium.

“Whatever our wounded warriors need, we’ll create,” Liacouras said.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below.

[Source: US Air Force]

 

 

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