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New Prosthetic Leg Allows the Wearer to Feel Again

It’s been a long time since we’ve come across a new story about bionic limbs. The stories we came across mainly focused on prosthetic arms and how the user could control them with their mind. But what about bionic legs? What sort of improvements could be made for the lower extremities?

If you ask Wolfang Rangger, who lost his right leg in 2007, he says his new artificial leg, “feels like I have a foot again. It’s like a second lease of life. When I step on a stone I feel it, which has not been the case before.”

That’s because his new bionic leg is created with sensors in the foot that allow the recipient to feel what they are walking on. Just as with the bionic arm prosthetic, being able to feel what it touches is a great improvement over not feeling anything.

This new artificial leg is the work of Professor Hubert Egger of the University of Linz in Austria. The sensors in his bionic leg stimulate the nerves in the wearer’s stump, giving them the sensation of feeling the ground they walk on. According to the BBC, it was the first time that a leg amputee had been fitted with a sensory-enhanced prosthesis.

The leg works much like the bionic arms we’ve talked about before: Six sensors are fitted to the base of the foot to measure the pressure of heel, toe, and foot movement. These sensors in turn send signals to stimulators inside the leg’s shaft where it touches the base of the stump. The stimulators activate the nerve endings under the skin, which finally relay the signals back to the brain.”The sensors tell the brain there is a foot and the wearer has the impression that it rolls off the ground when he walks,” says Professor Egger.

Mr. Rangger has been testing this new leg, both in the lab and at home, for six months now. “I no longer slip on ice and I can tell whether I walk on gravel, concrete, grass or sand,” he says. “I can even feel small stones.” Not only that, the 54-year-old former teacher goes running, cycling and even rock climbing thanks to this new leg. He might be ready for the Cybathlon in 2016 if he keeps up the pace!

Another major benefit of this artificial leg is the reduction in excruciating “phantom limb” pain. Mr. Rangger lost his leg after a stroke caused a blood clot to form, and he’s been experiencing pain at the amputation site for years afterwards. But thanks to this new artificial leg, Prof Egger says that the brain is now receiving real data rather than searching for information from the missing limb.

It’s fantastic that prosthetic limbs (both arms and legs) are improving experiences for amputees. If this research, engineering and development keeps up, it won’t be long before bionic limbs can completely restore sensation and mobility to a person’s life. We say: keep up the good work!

Photo credit: BBC

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