contributed by Melissa Lucas, senior staff writer
There are over 1,500 veterans with missing limbs as a result of events that occurred during their service in Iraq or Afghanistan. In addition to amputation, nearly 80% of these Veterans experience additional health concerns, often related to the same set of circumstances which caused the loss of limb(s). At the top of this are:
Despite these grim statistics, which are troubling to say the least, the majority of amputee Veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) report that they are living full lives and are generally in high spirits. Many have found ways to continue their participation in their favorite activities, while some have picked up new hobbies like beekeeping (yes, beekeeping!) or have begun participating in competitive sports like those included in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
Many amputee Veterans in America credit their remarkable prosthetic devices and other adaptive equipment as part of the reason they have recovered so well from their amputations.
The average age of an OIF/OEF amputee Veteran is 25 years old when they lose their limb(s). These Veterans have so much of their lives ahead of them, and it is vital that the military and VA do everything in their power to ensure they are able to live their lives to the fullest. Some of the benefits for Veterans with amputations include:
VA disability ratings for amputation are determined in the same way as all other disability ratings; however, amputee Veterans may qualify for special compensation in lieu of, or in addition to, the standard disability compensation.
There are a number of prosthetic limb types available to amputees. Military service members have access to a wide range of options from models that are purely cosmetic to those which are externally powered and connected to the musculoskeletal system.
Additionally, the amount of assistive technology available to amputee Veterans is increasing rapidly. Today this includes everything from mobility equipment such as electric wheelchairs, adaptive driving technology, electronic cognitive devices, and adapted sports and recreation technology.
Not only will the VA cover prosthetics for amputee Veterans, the Department of Defense, in collaboration with the VA and the Center for Limb Loss and Mobility, are committed to improving prosthetic prescription in amputee Veterans.
Ongoing mobility research investigates the ways in which various prosthetic components can be used to most effectively mimic natural musculoskeletal function. The hope is that improvements to disabled Veterans’ prosthetics will increase mobility and comfort, while at the same time preventing various injuries which can result from lack of mobility while using prosthetics.
The VA prosthetic limb research is aimed at developing high functioning artificial limbs. (They also place a focus on advanced, easier to use, wheelchair designs which promote mobility and independence for wheelchair users).
Errors in foot placement and micro movements used to maneuver everyday environments, specifically while avoiding obstacles, can lead to falls and potential injuries. Amputee gait research aims to develop a prosthetic foot which allows amputees to control the center of pressure during movement, enhancing balance and stability.
The muscles used by non-amputees to quickly change direction or maneuver around obstacles require finite control. Researchers are testing the use of a compliant torque adapter to help amputees exert similar control over their prosthesis.
Similar to the energy stored in a compressed spring, the tension created within the musculoskeletal system of non-amputees helps to propel us forward as we walk. Current research is investigating approaches to provide similar propulsive force within the joint of prosthetic devices. If accomplished, this new technology has the potential to help relieve fatigue, correct asymmetrical gait, and improve amputees’ ability to walk at varying speeds while using their prosthetic.
For years, the focus of prosthetic research has been on restoring mobility and function in amputee Veterans. Today, a major focus is on restoring sensation and the ways can lead to improved function while using prosthetics.
Current robotics research is focused on truly understanding the microscopic ways our limbs operate – not just in terms of biomechanics and anatomy, but in terms of neurological connections to the musculoskeletal system. Combining sensors, algorithms, electronically powered assistive devices, and robotic tools, medical prosthetics may eventually be able to mimic natural biomechanics.
A common complaint of prosthetic users is the increased skin temperature within the prosthetic socket. Researchers are developing active cooling systems based on biofeedback to reduce this discomfort.