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Orthopedic devices include a wide range of braces, internal supports, and other devices that are used to help support and stabilize the body. Some are used externally and can be easily removed when unnecessary, which provides comfort when sleeping and makes bathing easier. Others are implanted internally. For example, plates and rods are often used to permanently reinforce the bones and connective tissue following a traumatic injury or to treat genetic physical deformities. Replacement joints are another category of internal orthopedic device.
Most people are familiar with braces used to provide stability to the joints. These orthopedic devices are used externally and can be easily removed when they are not needed. They are designed to allow flexibility in the supported joint, but restrain it from moving too far. Braces are commonly used to support ankles, knees, wrists, and elbows. Back braces are also available to support the back after an injury or to help promote good posture.
Some external orthopedic devices are designed to immobilize an injured area during the healing process. These often take the place of a bulky, heavy cast. They make it easier for the patient to bathe than a cast, and they allow doctors easier access to the affected area to assess recovery. Patients and their caregivers must be carefully trained with these devices since they will be regularly applying and removing them.
There is a range of orthopedic devices designed to support the feet and ankles as well. Orthopedic socks and hosiery provide compression and support on the foot and the ankle. These are designed to provide comfort, relieve fatigue, and prevent varicose veins. Likewise, orthopedic shoes are designed to reduce pressure points on the joints while supporting proper shape to the foot. Orthopedic devices for the feet are often recommended for diabetics since their feet often suffer poor circulation and are prone to infections.
Many women turn to orthopedic devices to ease the discomfort of pregnancy. For example, some companies make special orthopedic belts to support the belly during pregnancy. This also reduces strain on the back by providing lumbar and abdominal support. Pregnant women may also elect to use orthopedic socks to reduce swelling in their feet.
Some orthopedic devices are implanted internally to provide permanent support to bones and joints. Metal rods, for instance, may be placed in the back or limbs to correct problems such as scoliosis or to provide a framework for regrowth after a severe break. Likewise, screws and plates may be implanted to provide compression to the fragments of mending bones. Wires also are used for their flexibility, which makes them less invasive to place than rods or plates. They may be a temporary or permanent solution to stabilizing a bone that has been broken in many places.
External fixation devices use a combination of internal and external hardware to support broken bones. These orthopedic devices fasten internally to the bone but attach to a rod outside the body. These are rarely used — typically only when closed, internal healing techniques fail. Doctors, patients, and caregivers must carefully monitor external fixation devices for signs of infection.
While stabilizers and fixation systems work for breaks and injuries to the bones, the connective tissue in joints sometimes becomes so damaged that it needs to be replaced. Many people undergo knee, elbow, and hip replacement surgeries that replace damaged tissue with an orthopedic device. These joints usually last between 10 and 15 years before wearing out.