Implantable Orthopedic Technology: Fact or Science-Fiction?
The Bionic Woman and The Bionic Man were two of my favorite shows in the 1980’s. Now, just 30-some years later, implantable and wearable orthopedic technology exists and may soon be widely available– at the mall or on Amazon.com.
As a follow-up to our earlier “Quick Look at Smart Implants” post, we’re digging in a bit more on the history of how these valuable research tools have evolved during the past 50+ years, how it’s being used today, the benefits and advancements this technology has helped achieve in the field of orthopedics, and a vision for the future of implants.
A Short History of Implantable Technology
Implantable technology in the biomechanical world has been around since the 1960’s, with the first millimeter-sized strain gauges that were capable of sensing minute changes in pressure and motion. At the time, these strain gauges were the exclusive property of academic scientists, and couldn’t be implanted without approval from a given institution’s quasi-governmental “Institutional Review Board”.
The next generation of implantable devices was wireless and powered by a battery. However, the battery’s bulk and limited shelf-life restricted its effectiveness. Without external recharging wires, such sensors and gauges were soon useless pieces of metal and plastic in the body.
Modern “Smart Implants”
What followed is today called a “smart implant” – a passively powered device that couples an external power source and internal antenna to transmit power and data back and forth from the environment to the device. Smart implants are considered relatively state-of-the-art and are valuable tools in researching and assessing the performance of implantable joints, stents and pacemakers.
Unfortunately, excessively complex manufacturing and implant procedures continue to limit their widespread adoption and use.
Implantable Orthopedic Technology is Changing Today’s Treatments and Diagnosis
What has implantable orthopedic technology taught us? So far, it’s led to advancements in physical therapy, post-operative rehabilitation, and prosthesis design — specifically including:
- Improved post-operative orthopedic rehabilitation
- Better implant designs
- Dispelling commonly-held orthopedic myths
- Changing recommendations for work-space design
- Guiding litigation involving back pain
- Demonstrating forces that are changing physical therapy
With more accurate data that is culled directly from implants in many areas of the body, researchers are gathering data on the ways specific kinds of motion and activity impact the body, and how the body responds. However, the current uses for smart implants are almost exclusively for data collection and research purposes.
The Future of Smart Implants
In the future, health technology will most likely involve implantable devices that can alter function, not just measure orthopedic function. While this may seem like science-fiction, the technology today is close to being able to make this leap. The next big step will be for companies to invest in developing such devices. Once that occurs, I expect we will be able not only to better understand how the human body works, but also:
- Understand the specific causes of injuries, in order to appropriately treat them faster and more effectively
- Detect infections before they become painful and disruptive
- Measure the healing progress of fractured or broken bones
- Detect early hip dislocation
- Deliver precisely controlled and localized medications
These tools are in our reach, and are going to contribute exciting changes for patient care in the near future!
Image courtesy of osphere / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Dr. Meredith Warner is a board certified, Fellowship Trained Foot and Ankle, Orthopedic surgeon practicing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dr. Warner is committed to offering her patients an accurate diagnosis along with a comprehensive treatment plan in order to get them back to a pain free life. Dr. Meredith Warner specializes in the treatment of orthopedic issues, providing operative and non-operative treatment plans of orthopedic problems, including musculoskeletal pain such as chronic back, neck and foot pain, reconstructive surgery of the foot and ankle, arthritis, diabetic, hammer toe, bunion, wound care, work injuries, fitness and nutrition and osteoporosis issues.