Prosthetics: When high-tech isn't always the best option

Robotic, Department-of-Defense funded, and power performance enhanced — high-tech replacement limbs make for great photos and video clips. And the people who wear them — often veterans, or well-off patients going through an inspirational recovery after an eye-popping accident — make for great media storytelling. But those stories don't represent the vast majority of amputees, writes Rose Eveleth at NOVA Next, and the high-tech prosthetics that get all the attention aren't always the best option to meet everyday needs.

In one study that explored the needs of amputee farmers, the researchers interviewed a man who was given a myoelectric arm—something that is not only expensive, but also completely unsuited for farm work. Myoelectric devices cannot get wet or dirty, two things that are nearly guaranteed during a day of farming. The farmer in question simply kept the arm in his closet—a $100,000 device sitting there gathering dust.Radocy’s body-powered hand can outperform even the most advanced myoelectric hands. It’s not just farmers for whom specialty electric devices aren’t quite right either. When it comes to everyday users, myoelectric arms or microprocessor knees, for all their amazing technology, are sometimes not the best option. Radocy, an upper limb amputee, is an advocate for what are called body-powered prostheses. Rather than being controlled by a computer or sensors, a body-powered arm is far more like a series of bicycle brakes—the arm is strapped to the users body, and connected to a series of cables. By twisting his body one way or another, Radocy can open and close his hand. The system may seem low-tech, but Radocy argues that when it comes to performance, his body-powered hand can outperform even the most advanced myoelectric hands.