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Overview of Limb Prosthetics

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

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 (such as atherosclerosis or damage due to diabetes), cancer, an injury (as in a motor vehicle crash or during combat), or a birth defect. In the United States, slightly fewer than 0.5% of people have an amputation. However, the percentage is likely to increase in the coming years because of the rising rate of obesity, which increases the risk of atherosclerosis and diabetes.

An entire limb or just 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 one or more 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, an artificial device (prosthesis) is often recommended to replace that part. At a minimum, a prosthesis should enable the user to perform daily activities (such as walking, eating, and 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 technology has improved so much in the last decade, much more functional and comfortable prostheses are available. Highly motivated and otherwise healthy people with a prosthesis can accomplish many extraordinary feats. For example, some go skydiving, climb mountains, run marathons, complete triathlons, participate fully in sports, or return to demanding jobs or to active duty in the military. They are living life without limitations. And whether a person uses a prosthesis only for activities at home or for a marathon, the prosthesis can provide profound psychologic benefits.

How well a prosthesis enables the user to function depends on his or her 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 (doctor, prosthetist, physical therapist, rehabilitation counselor) work with the amputee to determine the best possible fit and the most appropriate type of prosthesis. The prosthetist is an expert who designs, fits, builds, and adjusts prostheses and provides advice about how to use them. A user who is motivated will increase the likelihood of long-term success.