The world of prosthetic arms is an exciting, constantly innovative one. If you're asking "how good are prosthetic arms?", you're likely thinking about how far science has come - and the short answer to that is "a lot"!
Over the last 15 years there has been an explosion in scientific research and development into prosthetic limbs, particularly towards more precise hand control. Recently, some experimental prosthetics have been engineered to allow patients to feel objects they pick up! There have also been steps made to integrate AI into prosthetics. The idea here is to use machine learning and pattern recognition technology in order to memorise the muscle movement that corresponds with a wrist and hand action - in short, the prosthetic arm tries to learn and adapt to its user's intent over time.
Bionic options are slowly starting to make it into the mainstream - in November 2022 the NHS made bionic prosthetics available to non-veterans for the first time. This is a huge step forward for the accessibility of this option in the UK, offered when specialists deem it the most appropriate choice.
The prosthetic arms that make it into the news most frequently are those at the vanguard of medical technology. Naturally journalists will focus on these trial-stage prosthetics, as they will be the most interesting and inspiring stories for the general public. Often the information in these articles doesn't consider the drawbacks these early prototypes still need to work through, though.
Some of these prosthetics require surgery, usually to implant the electrode sensors but sometimes to attach the prosthetic itself. Most importantly, this can take a toll on the prospective user's health. There is also the potential cost of the procedure, particularly in the United States. The risk of complications or side effects is important to consider, especially if you aren’t completely confident that a bionic prosthetic will improve your everyday life.
Feature-rich prosthetics can often be heavy and unwieldy, making them uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time, especially for young people, or those with congenital limb loss who aren't used to having the weight of that limb. While this weight can be helpful - improving balance during physical activities like running and sports, in particular - it can still detract from the comfort and utility offered by the prosthetic.
This frontier of prosthesis technology is still relatively inaccessible. The foremost innovations in design are still in the development stage. This often means the devices simply aren't yet affordable, unless you can get one through the NHS. The price balloons even further if you're buying for a child, who will doubtless outgrow their prosthetic within a few years and need a replacement.
All things considered, these futuristic options might still be the best fit for you. Choosing a new prosthetic is an important decision, and the upside of multi-grip and intuitive technology could be worth the downsides. The main takeaway from this article should hopefully be that the latest in prosthetic technology isn't the be-all and end-all of how prosthetics are changing for the better.
Reframing the question, 'how good are prosthetic arms?'
Improvement in prosthetics technology isn't limited to pioneering bionics, however, and it's important to consider how else we can tackle the question "how good are prosthetic arms?" There is much more to the quality of life offered by a prosthetic device than the forefront of science.
The advent of 3D printing has opened all sorts of new options for the manufacturing of prosthetics. Every material will have its trade-offs, but the materials used for prosthetics are rapidly approaching the sweet spot between being lightweight and durable. Each prosthetic can be made bespoke to the intended user, with a socket designed to fit their unique residual limb, and replacement parts can be made quickly and at an affordable price.
While motor-controlled and myoelectric (electrode-controlled) prosthetics are still being iterated upon, the finest motor control is still in the user's existing muscles. This is why 3D printing is being used to improve the quality of life offered by body-powered prosthetics. These mechanical prosthetic options continue to be the preference of many prosthetic users, since they continue to be the best fit for wet and rugged environments.
Controlled by a cord or cable, practice with body-powered prosthetics can grant the user a marked improvement in control, as they learn how different cable tension corresponds with the arm's position - like the way you grow accustomed to brake strength on a bike. The modern multi-grip bionics certainly have the edge when it comes to potential mobility, but often the only function a prosthetic user needs is a strong and dependable grip in their off-hand, which a body-controlled prosthetic can manage handily.
ExpHand is one company that is bringing 3D printing technology to the prosthetic landscape. The attributes of 3D printable materials, in particular their relative weight and durability, make them perfect for children learning to use a prosthetic for the first time. They are also more affordable than traditional prosthetics, which allows children to play without having to worry about being delicate with their prosthetic, empowering them to be more independent.
Beyond function, some people look to passive prosthetics which focus on aesthetics. Passive prosthetics are commonly designed to look identical to the corresponding biological limb, which some users find helpful in social settings. Where function isn't the primary requirement, a passive hand could be found to be more helpful.
The right prosthetic arm for you or your child might not be the cutting edge of scientific advancement. Instead, the practical function of a mechanical design could fit your personality and lifestyle better. The right decision for which prosthetic limb option to consider is the one that best compliments the daily life of the user.
Of course, everyone leads complex and varied lives, and it's unlikely that one prosthetic could be the perfect fit for every possible activity. Some have put forward the idea of thinking about prosthetics - and particularly prosthetic attachments - as 'tools in a toolbox', which should be alternated and applied to the task they are best suited for.
If you have further questions, check out our other FAQs covering "how do prosthetic arms work" and "how are prosthetic arms controlled" or, if you want to sign up for the ExpHand beta trial, contact us here!