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After Boston marathon bombing, victims have more options for prosthetic limbs

A bionic leg. Chicago-area researchers are involved in some of the most cutting-edge technology for amputees. (Flickr/Jeffrey Ross)
Monday’s Boston marathon bombing wounded more than 170 people and several have had limbs amputated in emergency surgery; at least four at Massachusetts General Hospital alone. While losing a limb can be a traumatic experience, some Chicago-area doctors say the consequences of amputation have greatly improved in recent decades with advances in prosthetic technology.

“There are so many people that are amputees that live a normal life, and ... you really don’t even know [they’re amputees] unless they tell you,” said David King, a prosthetist at Chicago’s Acme Orthotic and Prosthetic Laboratory. “The technology has come a long way.”

Chicago is home to cutting-edge research on prosthetics that is changing the outlook for some amputees. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is involved with the development of mind-controlled limbs, which are already on the market. (The institute’s bionic leg made news last year when a man climbed Chicago’s Willis Tower with one.)

And Sliman Bensmaia, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and part of a national research project called Revolutionizing Prosthetics, is helping to develop prosthetics that can simulate feeling by transmitting messages back to the brain. That’s called sensory feedback, and upper limb functions are particularly dependent on that feedback.

“Without it everything that we would do would be extremely effortful, clumsy and slow,” said Bensmaia. For example, limbs with sensation would allow amputees to closely control grip; without that control, it can be more practical to use a high-tech hook than a prosthetic hand. But there’s another benefit to the new technology Bensmaia is working on.

“We feel our own limb as part of ourselves,” said Bensmaia. Which is why some have compared the sensation of losing a limb to losing a loved one. By developing sensory limbs patients could feel more connected to the prosthesis itself. The project plans to test-run its sensory prosthetics on real people within a year.

But there’s more to amputation than just getting the right technology on the market. For victims like  those injured in the Boston marathon blast, getting used to a prosthesis may require months of physical therapy and emotional adjustment. Then there’s the ;potential cost: top-of-the-line artificial limbs are not included in a lot of insurance plans.

“Private insurance is the best insurance to have,” said King. Veterans get the best technology through VA insurance, but when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid patients, he said, “the government won’t always pay for the good stuff.” He’s had patients pay for upgrades in installments, and he said some volunteer for product testing workshops with manufacturers in exchange for free parts.

Still, even the most basic prosthetics are lighter and easier to use than a few decades ago, and King says his patients are often surprised by the results after a few months of physical therapy and training.

The total number of amputees in the U.S. is estimated at 1.7 million, the majority as a result of diseases like diabetes.

Lewis Wallace is a Pritzker Journalism Fellow at WBEZ. Follow him @lewispants.

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