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Prosthetic Limbs: The Past, the Present and the Exciting Future

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If you are lucky enough to have all your arms and legs, chances are you take them for granted.  But consider for a moment what a remarkable biological machine the human body is.  Take the hand.  Its muscles are intricate enough to write letters, paint and play musical instruments, but strong enough to grip heavy objects. 

For those who lose a limb, through disease or accident, the loss of functionality and the ability to walk, run, play games and pick up objects can be devastating.  However, prosthesis can help restore some of the capabilities lost following an amputation allowing many patients to lead full, independent lives.

Reasons for amputation

Amputations can result from serious accidents such as a motor vehicle collision, being crushed by machinery at work or slicing through a limb extremity.  An amputation can also follow a disease which affects the limbs such as diabetes and cancer.

How artificial limbs work

In theory, any part of the body—from your ear or nose to your finger or toe—could be replaced by a prosthesis.  In practice, there are four common types of prosthetic limb, which replace either a partial or complete loss of an arm or leg:

  • below the knee (BK, transtibial): A prosthetic lower leg attached to an intact upper leg.
  • above the knee (AK, transfemoral): A prosthetic lower and upper leg, including a prosthetic knee.
  • below the elbow (BE, transradial): A prosthetic forearm.
  • above the elbow (AE, transhumeral): A prosthetic lower and upper arm, including a prosthetic elbow.

Every artificial limb is fitted to the individual patient and built to their specific requirements[1].  A person who specialises in this process is known as a prosthetist.  If possible, a prosthetist, who will have an in-depth knowledge of engineering, physiology, and anatomy, will begin measuring for an artificial limb before the amputation takes place.

Following the amputation and after the swelling has reduced, a plaster mould of the residual limb is taken which serves as the template for creating the artificial limb.

It is not just the size of the residual limb the prosthetist considers; the location of muscles, tendons, and bones, along with the age and physical health of the patient is also taken into account.  Special attention is paid to the residual limb and how it fits with the prosthetic socket.  Over time, as swelling begins to come down and muscles begin to atrophy, or shrink from lack of use, the fitting of the socket needs to be adjusted.  Children fitted with an artificial limb must be closely monitored to ensure it is resized and replaced regularly to keep in line with their natural growth.

When deciding on the type of prothesis to choose, it is important to have in-depth conversations with your medical team and the prosthetist.  They will inform you of the type of prosthetic limbs available, discuss the goals you have for your recovery and the lifestyle you wish to lead and provide realistic expectations on what can be achieved with a prosthetic limb.

The importance of rehabilitation for amputees using prosthetic limbs

Intensive rehabilitation is vital for amputees who require a prosthetic limb.  Therapists will help patients learn how to condition the stump to encourage the natural process of shrinking so the artificial limb can be fitted correctly.  This can be aided by providing the use of a temporary prosthetic limb, which can also assist the patient with learning to use the limb in everyday life.

Rehabilitation and therapy teaches patients how to put on and remove their new limb and how to make the most of its functionality.  Those who have suffered limb-loss must also learn how to care for their prosthetic limb and their stump.

Strength training, balance and cardio-vascular fitness is also a vital part of the rehabilitation process.

Modern prostheses are complex devices that are built to specific standards and, as such, need to be looked after. If the patient feels something has gone wrong with their prosthesis, or if it begins to feel sore, the rehabilitation centre should be contacted immediately and given as much detail as possible about the problem. This will enable staff to decide how urgently an appointment is needed and whether the referral needs to be with the prosthetist, nurse or doctor. It is very important that the patient does not attempt to alter, adjust or repair the prosthesis themselves, as this may leave it in a dangerous state.

The future – bionic and robotic limbs

With the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), what was once only imaginable in science fiction is now close to be a reality.  For example, biomedical researchers from Newcastle University, have developed a prototype prosthetic limb with a AI-powered camera mounted on top. The camera utilises computer vision technology that big tech companies have developed, with researchers using deep learning to teach it to recognize some 500 objects. When the wearer of the limb moves to grab, say, a door handle, the camera takes a picture of the object, and moves the hand into a suitable “grasp type.” The user then confirms the grip action with a myoelectric signal, enhancing the grip functionality of a prosthetic hand considerably[2].

Final words

With the developments in prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation methods, coupled with AI, the ability of those who have lost limbs to regain normal functionality continue to improve.  If the injury or illness which resulted in an amputation was caused by the negligent act or omission of another, claiming compensation can help patients access and fund the medical treatment required to take advantage of these new developments.

Our personal injury team, led by Malcolm Underhill, has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent you if you wish to make a claim following an amputation. To talk about how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence and handled with the utmost sensitivity.

By Photo courtesy of The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) -, Public Domain,




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