Restoring sensation for amputees
Over the last decade there have been many developments in prostheses used by amputees. The range of products available has grown from the most basic – a rigid “limb” providing nothing but support – to a state of the art system replicating the movement of knee, ankle and wrist joints, along with moveable fingers, all of which are electronically controlled. Some advanced prostheses can even be operated by an App on the user’s mobile phone.
Despite these technological advances, many amputees remain troubled by the loss of sensation when using these products. This may all be about to change thanks to research undertaken in Austria.
Scientists there have developed an artificial leg that stimulates nerves at the bottom of the amputees stump, restoring the sensation of having a real life foot. The system works by measuring the pressure applied to the heel, toe and foot parts of the prosthesis. It then sends signals to stimulators implanted at the nerve endings of the stump which vibrate, sending a signal to the brain.
Whilst the technology does not precisely replicate the sensation experienced in natural limbs, it generates “the impression that [the foot] rolls off the ground”, according to Professor Egger, one of the scientists involved in the research at the University of Linz.
The foot will however allow the user to recognise what surface they are standing on, and could alert them to any uneven surface that they may be on. Wolfgang Rangger, an amputee trialling the device, said, “I no longer slip on ice and I can tell whether I walk on gravel, concrete, grass or sand. I can even feel small stones”. He also reports a reduction in “phantom limb pain”, where the nerves at the stump recreate the sensation that a limb is there, but often in a painful and unrepresentative way; a common side affect of amputation.
This is not the first time that sensory signals have been recreated in a limb, although it is the first time the technology has been used in a foot. A group of international scientists have already successfully used this technology in an arm and hand.
What the development in Austria does mean though is that these new technologies can be replicated and advanced in other prostheses, and it is hoped that before long the technology will be available commercially, for amputees to use, and improved upon to provide more realistic sensory simulation.
Clarke Willmott’s serious injury team represents many clients who have undergone traumatic or elective amputation. The primary objective in any claim is to achieve the best outcome for the injured person, restoring function, mobility, independence and quality of life so far as is possible. We can assist those pursuing a claim for compensation in obtaining state-of-the-art equipment, and we hope it is not long before all amputees can benefit from the restoration in sensation that Mr Rangger is now experiencing.
Clarke Willmott has close links with the Meningitis Research Foundation and the Limbless Association and we run Amputation awareness days attended by amputees, practitioners and charities involved in the field of amputation. To view footage from previous events, please click here.
If you, or anyone you know, has undergone amputation or any other serious injury as a result of an accident and would like some advice, please contact the head of the serious injury team, Lee Hart on 0345 209 1465 or by email Lee.Hart@clarkewillmott.com.