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Overview of Limb Prosthetics

By James Baird, CPO, Director of Education, Hanger Clinic

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Patient Education

A prosthesis is an artificial device that replaces a missing body part.

A limb may be amputated or missing because of a blood vessel disorder (eg, atherosclerosis, damage due to diabetes), cancer, an injury (eg, in a motor vehicle accident, during combat), or a birth defect. In the US, slightly < 0.5% of people have an amputation. However, the percentage is likely to increase because of the rising rate of obesity, which increases the risk of atherosclerosis and diabetes.

An entire limb or part of one may be amputated. A lower-limb amputation may involve a toe, a foot, part of the leg below or above the knee, or an entire leg (at the hip). An amputation may even extend above the hip. An upper-limb amputation may involve 1 fingers, a hand, part of the arm below or above the elbow, or an entire arm (at the shoulder).

If a body part is missing, a prosthesis is often recommended to replace that part. At a minimum, a prosthesis should enable the user to perform daily activities (eg, walking, eating, dressing) independently and comfortably. However, a prosthesis may also enable the user to function as well or nearly as well as before the amputation. Because of recent advances in technology and prosthetic socket design, more functional and comfortable prostheses are available. Highly motivated, otherwise healthy people with a prosthesis can accomplish many extraordinary feats (eg, go skydiving, climb mountains, run marathons, complete triathlons, fully participate in sports, or return to demanding jobs or to active duty in the military). They can live life without limitations. Whether a prosthesis is used only for activities at home or for more demanding activities, it can provide profound psychologic benefits.

How well a prosthesis enables the user to function depends on the patient's anatomy and several other factors:

  • Fit, stability, and comfort of the prosthesis

  • Socket type and components selected

  • User’s goals, overall health, age, and frame of mind

Success is most likely when a clinical team (physician, prosthetist, therapist, rehabilitation counselor) works with the patient to determine the most appropriate type of prosthesis. (Prosthetists design, fit, build, and adjust prostheses and provide advice about how to use them.) A user who is motivated increases the likelihood of long-term success.