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What are Orthotics and Prosthetics?

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  • Written By: Sara Schmidt
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Images By: Laurent Dambies, Dario Sabljak, n/a, Wavebreakmediamicro, Belahoche, Milosluz, Nilsz, Milosljubicic
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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Many people with abnormalities, deformities, or missing body parts can be helped with orthotics and prosthetics. These are pieces of medical equipment that can help replace or improve body parts. They include braces, inserts, artificial limbs, and many other medical equipment fabrications.

Prosthetics are artificial extensions of the body. They are used to replace body parts that are missing from birth, lost through an injury or disease, or which require removal for medical purposes. A prosthesis can also supplement an existing but defective body part. Some prosthetics include artificial lungs, knees, eyes, hearts, hips, limbs, heart valves, ankles, dentures, and gastric bands.

Orthotics generally include most devices that correct, improve or support body abnormalities. Musculoskeletal deformities are particularly aided by custom orthotics. Some common conditions corrected or aided by orthotics include fractures, scoliosis, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and various impairments resulting from a spinal injury or stroke. Orthotic shoes are often prescribed for patients with foot ailments.

There are five main types of orthotics. Rigid orthotics are firm devices that are used to control movement. Created from carbon fiber or plastic, they are used to control movement and reduce pain, particularly with feed. Soft orthotics, made of compressible materials, are often used for conditions such as arthritis or diabetes, in which they relieve pain and pressure.

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Athletes may benefit from semirigid orthotics. These help achieve balance while running or performing other physical activities. Other individuals may need custom, or calibrated, orthotics. These use an individual's weight, activity level, and flexibility level to create specific equipment for their personal needs. The most modern form of orthotics, proprioceptive orthotics, is a less expensive means of supporting individuals with conditions such as Morton’s Foot Syndrome.

As a career field, orthotics and prosthetics can be the practice of designing and creating such equipment. People who work in orthotics and prosthetics evaluate patients' needs, fabricate products according to those needs, and custom fit orthopedic braces and artificial limbs. Careers opportunities in this health profession can include job titles such as direct practitioner, orthotist, fitter, assistant, pedorthist, or technician.

Many sciences have contributed to the study of orthotics and prosthetics. These include anatomy and physiology, engineering, psychology, and gait analysis. Orthotics and prosthetics are also part of the biomechatronics field of science. This field includes the fusion of mechanical devices with actual human body parts within the nervous, muscular, and skeletal systems.

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