Building a Better Arm: An Amputee Helps Engineer His Own Future

| July-August 2009

This is part of a series of stories on design and disability from the July-August 2009 Utne Reader. For more read “Form and Fashion,” “Prosthetic Power,” “The Future of Prosthetics,” and “The Hype and Hope of Prosthetics.”

Ever since the first few amputees returned from Afghanistan in 2001, media coverage has often emphasized the medical care that saves their lives, and the advanced prosthetics they wear, with phrases like bionic arms and thought control.

The chasm between what people think is out there and what is actually available to an amputee has existed for years. The hype isn’t limited to the popular press: Scientific research and scientific literature repeat these claims. The first myoelectric prosthetic arm was demonstrated in 1955. That presentation included a powered hook that looks remarkably like one I got from Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 1965 a New York Times headline proclaimed “New Process Will Help Amputee to Control Limb with Thought.” In 2007 a Popular Science article described a prototype robotic hand as “mind controlled” and “dexterous enough to play the piano.” The headlines have stayed the same, but, as I discovered, so has the technology. These prosthetic “concept cars” have historically had little effect on what most arm amputees actually wear.

Let me be clear: No expense has been spared on providing military arm amputees with the most cutting-edge technology available. Amputees at Walter Reed get the works—myoelectric and body-powered prosthetic arms with any attachments we might want, sports and other task-specific arms, cosmetic arms painted with the tattoos we used to have, you name it. In 2006 the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $1.6 billion on prosthetic devices and services. It’s the best insurance and the best care in the world, but that doesn’t change what there is to buy or what it can do.

The body-powered prosthetic split hook I chose instead of the myo arm has been characterized by some as little more than a rubber band and a stick. But the surprisingly useful mechanical design has endured for close to a century. Body-powered prosthetics have cable controls that you move by shrugging and tensing your shoulders, an action that opens and closes a simple hook or hand appendage. After trying everything else, I opted to wear this arm.

Mine is indistinguishable from those worn by amputees after World War II, except in materials: silicones and plastics in the socket, carbon fiber instead of wood or fiberglass in the frame, titanium instead of steel in the hook, synthetic fiber instead of steel cable for control.

8/3/2009 6:34:55 PM

I am an amputee as of Jan.21 of this year due to cancer in my left arm. Your article was very interesting to me. My insurance would not pay for a mioelectric arm but would pay for a body powered arm. Your article made me feel a lot more at ease about everything now. THANK YOU! I am a 56 year old female still adapting.

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