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A View from David Ewing Duncan

A Hand for the Wounded

An innovative high-tech prosthetic hand offers individually controlled fingers and a more realistic touch.

  • July 18, 2007

A new bionic hand is now available that, for the first time, allows users to operate the fingers independently, using the muscles in the remaining part of their arm. The fingers also have an increased level of sensitivity that enables the user to pick up a Styrofoam cup with little effort, or a business card off a table. A skinlike coating makes the hand feel and look more human than other artificial hands.

A new hand: The i-LIMB hand is a prosthetic device with five individually powered fingers to give users a prosthesis that comes very close to looking and acting like a real human hand.
Credit: Touch Bionics

The new hand, called the i-LIMB, is made by United Kingdom-based Touch Bionics. The company plans to unveil the device at the 12th World Congress of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics in Vancouver, Canada, held from July 29 through August 3. According to the company’s website,

“The i-LIMB Hand is controlled by a unique, highly intuitive control system that uses a traditional two-input myoelectric (muscle signal) to open and close the hand’s life-like fingers. Myoelectric controls utilize the electrical signal generated by the muscles in the remaining portion of the patient’s limb. This signal is picked up by electrodes that sit on the surface of the skin. Existing users of basic myoelectric prosthetic hands are able to quickly adapt to the system and can master the device’s new functionality within minutes.”

The hand is already being used by soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A few months ago, I attended a dinner in New York sponsored by the Wounded Warriors, a group that supports soldiers wounded in the line of duty, and I was able to see a next-generation prosthetic arm. A major focus of the Warriors is to provide soldiers, who have lost arms, legs, or both, with prosthetic limbs, therapy sessions, and services to meet their needs.

Much to my surprise, a uniformed marine at my table was missing part of an arm and both legs. I say I was surprised because he walked and interacted normally. Although I noticed that his hand was artificial–it was made out of white plastic–he used it almost like a real human hand to eat, pick up things, and greet others. When I shook his hand, I could tell it was metal and plastic, but the grip felt natural.

I don’t remember the marine’s name, but I am truly amazed by his courage. He had been a sniper in Iraq and was wounded when his lightly armored Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb. Far from angry or bitter, he was recently married and is able to water-ski and participate in other sports and activities. At the time I spoke with him, he was gung ho about life.

Fortunately, those who are wounded and lose limbs during combat now have the benefit of advanced electronics, materials, and biotech to provide them with prosthetics like none ever seen before. Tragically, many more soldiers may need them before the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is finished.

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