Advances in Prosthetic Limbs that Provides Unlimited Potential for Transitioning Veterans

Advances in prosthetics

The aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will signify a remarkable 'turn-of-events' in the US history books for several reasons... they will be distinctively remembered because of the longevity of the conflicts (the longest wars in US history), the largest concentration of female participants (17.4% of Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans are females) and the lowest mortality rate than any other major US military conflict (a record 6% mortality rate vs. 17% associated with Vietnam.)

Many factors help to explain the increased survivability percentage of military personnel that have been seriously wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Significant combat medical advances, innovative treatments, more efficient technology and enhanced training of emergency medical personnel are primarily responsible - along with more advanced communications and military emergency transportation vehicles, that can dramatically preserve the critical time and safe passage needed for personnel to quickly navigate dangerous combat landscapes to well-prepared staff, field operating rooms and emergency treatment centers.

The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are also distinguished by the significant amount of various physical and hidden injuries that result from exposure to improvised explosive devices (IED's) and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs.) Many of these common and devastating IED battlefield explosions create a significant amount of limb, soft tissue and psychological damage, including the complex and debilitating 'after-effects' associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) While some 'war-related' conditions such as TBI's or traumatic brain injuries (a TBI may involve severely damage and functionality to the possible billions of vital neurological micro-processor cells within the brain), along with the seriously damaging effects of PTSD conditions (that can be overcome with time, treatment and medication) are both very prevalent - it is often the horrific burns, shrapnel and physical destruction to a veteran's face, torso and limbs (legs, feet, arms and hands) that is often the priority issue that is immediately addressed at the site of an IED blast.

The main priority, has been to apply a tight tourniquet that will stop any profuse losses of blood and help stabilize the injured person. Unfortunately, with common tourniquet procedures for emergency medicine, many limbs are often deprived of vital oxygenated blood and are sometimes sacrificed for the ultimate survival of the person.
The U.S. military is now experimenting with new hemostatic dressings. These medical dressings contain fibrin sealant bandages with powdered fibrinogen and thrombin chemicals that (in about 3 minutes) help induce blood clotting for some combat injuries. The dressings can be just as effective with more loose tourniquets and can be applied for joints and armpits that are typically not covered by military body armor. These advances are helping to improve emergency medicine and reduce amputations.

While we may have a higher military survival rate as a whole (along with increased TBIs and PTSD conditions), we are also returning a significantly higher number of veterans with limb amputations and prosthetics and related challenges from combat injuries back into our society. People with these medical experiences now represent the country's newest and young diversity demographic and businesses must meet their demands by providing more diversity education awareness, accommodations and non-judgmental social environments for them as employees, customers, stakeholders and consumers.

The use of advanced rehabilitation programs and prosthetics

More veterans are utilizing VA and medical facilities to help treat some catastrophic battlefield conditions and regain functionality for basic ambulatory functions such as walking, holding and placing objects, along with sight functions. Many medical innovators are discovering more creative and technological ways to help restore a person's ability to live a somewhat 'normal' and comfortable lifestyle after combat.

Innovative prosthetics for some hand and arm amputations are now intelligently equipped to respond directly to a person's thought process to mock normal movements such as grasping, lifting, reaching, writing, typing, pushing and pulling. Other prosthetic devices can be implemented to restore different forms of walking, running, kneeling, lifting, sitting and other leg and feet related mobility. The latest uses and applications of these prosthetic devices can actually be equipped to restore some forms of sight and sensation - these advances are considered 'light-years' ahead of the medical technologies that were once available as late as 10 years ago. There is now great room for high potential and improvement for people with neurological challenges as well, as science is working on ways to restore mobility, independence and sensory function for people with paralysis.

Physical rehabilitation services are also improving with the fast pace of prosthetic innovators. Rehabilitation programs are now promising faster, rigorous and more effective treatments for veterans and athletes that have experienced (once considered) devastating injuries with improbable recoveries. No longer are devastating injuries from combat considered the 'end-of-the-road' for veteran survivors, as many innovations are now focused to design solutions that help restore confidence, establish full functionality and independence, as well as repair a person's cosmetic appearance and boost self-esteem.

Applying advanced prosthetics for use in the modern-day workplace

Employers are ambitiously welcoming diverse talent from the military and are seeking to merge advances in prosthetic research and technology with technological advancements that improve functionality, ergonomics and accommodations for people with disabilities within the workplace.

A recent article from the US Department of VA states, "Today's VA researchers use leading edge technologies such as robots and nanotechnology to create lighter limbs that integrate body, mind, and machine to look, feel, and respond like real arms and legs. They are also studying ways to best match prosthetic components with amputees' needs, including those whose active lifestyles mean they need high-performance prosthetics.

Recently, a VA team working with researchers at MIT and Brown University introduced a "powered ankle-foot prosthesis, " which uses tendon-like springs and an electric motor to move people forward. Studies have shown that patients using the powered ankle-foot expend less energy while walking, have better balance, and walk 15 percent faster. The device is now available for Veterans using VA care and active-duty service members. It is also on the market commercially.

The VA is sponsoring the first human study in the United States to investigate osseointegrated prosthetics. Osseointegration firmly anchors implants in place by integrating implanted material in living bone. The current study involves implanting specially designed and coated titanium sockets into the femurs of amputees who have lost much of their leg. The bone of the residual limb should grow into the implant. After healing is complete, users should have better control of their prosthetic leg, and it should also be easier to put the leg on, and take it off. "

These and many other similar 'cutting-edge' initiatives can be applied to civilian workplace applications and may have a positive impact on transition, production and other 'quality-of-life' outcomes.

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Ed Crenshaw is a US Navy veteran, diversity practitioner, disability subject matter expert and creator of the innovative “Preparing Employers to Reintegrate Combat Exposed Veterans with Disabilities” (P.E.R.C.E.V.D.) diversity training program. He is also the author of the books, “The P.E.R.C.E.V.D. Principles” and “The Employers Guide to Understanding Hidden Conditions Related to Suicide.” As a well-renown professional speaker, Ed is a passionate champion and respected advocate for people with disabilities.