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3-D Printed Hand Paves the Way

 

Mike Waldron likes to say he can do everything one-handed, except shuffle cards and cut steak. “I actually can cut steak,” he jokes, “but you don’t want to be around when I do.” Despite a congenitally malformed right hand, which has a thumb but no fingers, Waldron went through high school playing lacrosse and violin, doing yard work, and tinkering with his car.

And that, explains the Pasadena, Maryland, college senior, is why hand and arm prosthetics are different from foot and leg prosthetics. “It’s easier to cope without an upper extremity prosthetic — they have a tendency to sit in the corner and gather dust.”

But adapting well to an upper limb deficiency is a mixed blessing. For one thing, making up for lesser functionality on one side can lead to overuse syndrome on the “sound” side: shoulder pain, postural issues and repetitive-motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. “My doctor says I may be 22, but my left arm is 44.”

For another, early use of a good prosthesis works the rest of the arm, improving muscle tone and adapting the whole limb to the kind of movements that will be useful in a more sophisticated device. Waldron knows this only too well: Four years ago, he became the 10th person in the U.S. to receive a highly sophisticated myoelectric hand able to move each finger individually, lift a paper cup without crushing it and even write with a pen.

The device is revolutionary, but Waldron thinks it would be even more useful if he’d had a functional prosthesis from an early age. The only device he’d used before was a cosmetic hand, fitted for him in fifth grade to calm his pre-middle school social jitters. “I hated it,” he says. “I used it maybe two weeks, and it spent the rest of the time in my lunch box.” He calls the process of finding the right device trial and error. “You never know if something’s going to be right for you until you actually try it,” says Waldron.

Sticker Shock

This can be tough for parents staring down the barrel of $6,000 to $70,000 for prosthetics their kids will outgrow and may even refuse to wear. So when he learned about the $50 3-D printed prosthetics from Albert Chi, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medicine who normally works with highly sophisticated myoelectric limbs, Waldron was eager to try it. Always happy to speak to parents of kids with limb differences, using his experience to guide families through their own trials and adventures, Waldron now wants to contribute to Chi’s design process, helping him tweak the next generation of 3-D printed hands.

In the fall of 2014, he visited the motor control lab at Johns Hopkins for fittings. Chi presented him with his new hand at the Sept. 28 e-NABLE conference for 3-D printing enthusiasts, prosthetists, and kids and adults with missing or malformed limbs.

Waldron wants to put the new hand through its paces, to test the joints and see what kind of load they can bear. He plans to use it for the type of gross-motor activities that don’t suit his more advanced and delicate myoelectric hand; kayaking and golf come to mind. And he hopes it will strengthen his arm so he can use the myoelectric hand with less fatigue. “It’s a tool,” he says, “another option. If it gives me one more thing I can do, then that’s great.”

As seen in the 2016 Biennial Report. Learn more.