VA Takes On Shoulder Surgery Using 3D Printed Models

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The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been one of the country’s biggest and busiest embracers of 3D printing.

Making headlines seemingly every few months for the steady expansion of their additive manufacturing programs and efforts, the VA has been busy printing artificial lungs, establishing a shared network across its many hospitals, and even training veterans themselves to master the technology.

This month, the agency is in the news again for expanding its efforts to a common problem area for many veterans: the shoulder.

Shoulder To Shoulder With The Latest In 3D Printing

Especially in the aged and well-worked, shoulders can require replacing for a number of reasons.

Ball and socket prosthetics used in shoulder replacement surgery [Image: Northeast Spine and Sports]

One of the biggest is advanced arthritis in the shoulder joint, the ball and socket that connects the shoulder blade to the upper arm bone. A painful condition, undergoing shoulder replacement surgery is the usual recommendation should other treatments (like physical therapy, lifestyle changes, or corticosteroid shots) fail to lessen the pain.

3D printed model of a patient’s shoulder blade [Image: Journal of Digital Imaging]

The surgery involves cutting open the rotator cuff muscle in order to give surgeons access to the joint. There, operators remove the arthritic joint sections and install the replacement prosthetic. Usually, this prosthetic is a metal ball attached to a “stem”, which rests inside a new plastic socket.

Despite being a common surgery, shoulder joint sockets are a notoriously difficult area to prepare for and operate on due to the involved bones’ small nature.

By utilizing 3D printing, VA orthopedic surgeons can now scan and print models of each individual patient’s affected shoulder. Looking at a printed 3D model instead of an on-screen rendering or 2D print allows surgeons to get a clearer understanding of a patient’s specific anatomy before operating. Not only does this reduce the likelihood of complications during the surgery, it ideally means more efficient operations and also higher recovery rates.  

Beyond Just Shoulders

Shoulder surgery models and data, and the other medical uses the VA has been implementing are shared among a network used by 20 VA hospitals. In addition to better modeling for use in pre-surgery preparation, the robust network allows for same-day printing, fitting, and delivery to patients in need of specialized orthotics. The network is through a partnership with Stratasys, and is one of the first shared 3D printing hospital networks in the country.

“VA remains at the forefront of innovative work in 3D printing by expanding our expertise across VA,” says Agency secretary Robert Wilkie. “Through this growing virtual network, VA continues to help define how 3D printing technology will be used broadly in medicine for the benefit of patients.”

Across its 1,700 dedicated care centers, the VA sees and treats about 8.75 million veterans every year.

Sources: AllOnGeorgia | HospitalForSpecialSurgery | VeryWellHealth

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