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What are Prosthetic Limbs?

Some with prosthetic limbs may need canes or a walker while learning to use their new leg.
Today, prosthetic legs can be quite sophisticated thanks to advances in technology.
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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2014
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Prosthetic limbs are artificial devices that provide a portion of the functions normally provided by natural arms and legs. Often employed when a loss of limb occurs due to an accident or birth defect, the prostheses make it possible for individuals to enjoy more mobility and a better quality of life. A prosthetic limb may be a simple device that is functionally efficient, or an enhanced limb that is configured to have an appearance and range of motion that is very similar to that of a natural limb.

The concept of prosthetic limbs is found in many ancient cultures. Early prosthetic legs were carved from wood or other elements to provide warriors who had lost a portion or all of a leg in battle with at least some degree of mobility. In some cases, the design was very similar to that of a classic peg leg, essentially fitting to the knee joint or hip and making it possible to walk with the aid of a cane or staff.

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Today, artificial legs are often sophisticated devices that function with the use of a power source and sometimes sensors that make it possible to create a form of communication process between the device and the individual. Unlike the legs of centuries past, these newer prosthetic limbs often feature hydraulics that allow the leg to bend with the aid of an artificial knee joint, as well as balance on a prosthetic foot that mimics the actions of a human foot. Cosmetically, some of the replacement legs are covered with synthetic materials that have a appearance and feel that is similar to that of natural skin.

Prosthetic arms are also more sophisticated than in times past. Different models can be used to replace a forearm and hand, or an entire arm. Sensors mounted on the device at the point where the artificial arm fits onto the human body helps the wearer achieve more control of the limb, making it easier to operate the mechanism and simulate the natural movements of a human arm. The latest generation of artificial arms often are equipped with hands configured with digits that are capable of providing some ability to grip and perform functions in a manner similar to those of a human hand.

In general, prosthetics are used to replace a lost limb and restore some range of motion and mobility. However, there are also customized prosthetic limbs that are specifically configured to enhance a particular function. One example is that of prosthetic leg attachments that bear little resemblance to a natural foot, but provide excellent balance. Some of these designs also enhance the ability to run as well as walk. This function can allow athletically minded people to continue enjoying physical activities even after losing an arm or leg.

While prosthetic limbs in years past were not often built to the specifications of an individual, customized limbs are much more common today. This makes it possible to acquire an artificial limb that fits more comfortably, is easier to operate, and in general provides an enhanced level of service to the wearer. While many models are expensive, others are more affordable and can often be secured with the use of insurance coverage or programs designed to assist people with physical disabilities.

It is not unusual for amputees to own several prosthetic limbs. Some of the limbs may be used for particular tasks, such as participating in sports. Others may be constructed to cosmetically resemble human limbs and are worn in social situations.

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