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Overview of Limb Prosthetics

by Erik Schaffer, CP

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 accident 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 atherosclerosis and diabetes have become so widespread, as has obesity. Obesity increases the risk of atherosclerosis and diabetes and thus may contribute to an increase in amputations.

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, ideally, a prosthesis enables 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 better, more functional, and more 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 many factors:

  • The fit of the prosthesis

  • The type selected

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

Success is most likely when a prosthetist and the user work together to determine the best possible fit and the most appropriate type of prosthesis. The prosthetist is an expert who fits, builds, and adjusts prostheses and provides advice about how to use them. In addition, a user who is motivated will increase the likelihood of long-term success.