Prosthetics: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Prosthetics: What Are They and How Do They Work?

Have you ever thought about what life would be like without an arm or a leg? It would make many of your daily routines more difficult and, in some cases, impossible. However, thanks to the amazing world of prosthetics, we can use artificial body parts to regain many of the functions of a missing limb.

“Prosthetic” meaning

Anyone can lose body parts to trauma, disease, or conditions present at birth. “Prosthetics” describes the making and fitting of an artificial body part to replace one that has been lost. The term “prosthesis” refers to the artificial part itself.

Types of prosthetics

Four main types of artificial limbs exist, and their usage depends on what part of a limb is missing. Each type requires a different approach to regaining functions after amputation. Even under these four types of prosthesis, customizations and unique considerations should be accounted for in order to achieve the best possible use of an artificial limb.

  • Transradial replaces an arm missing below the elbow. Options include cable operated arms or myoelectric arms that use muscular signals to sense when the artificial hand needs to open or close.
  • Transhumeral replaces an arm missing above the elbow. This type has similar options to other artificial arms but can make it a bit more challenging to mimic the movements of the arm.
  • Transtibial replaces a leg missing below the knee. Amputees with this type of prosthesis are able to regain normal movement more easily, due in part to retaining the knee.
  • Transfemoral replaces a leg missing above the knee. Transfemoral amputees may have a more difficult time regaining normal function due to the complexities of knee movement. However, new and innovative designs aim to give the user more control.

History of prosthetics

The use of prosthetics actually dates back to antiquity. Historians have discovered several ancient stories referencing artificial body parts. The earliest known account dates back over 3,000 years ago, in which archaeologists discovered a woman with a wooden prosthetic toe attached to her foot via a leather strap.

There is also evidence that Roman General Marcus Sergius used a prosthesis. After losing his right hand, he had an iron hand designed for him, which helped him return to battle. Even pirates are known for restoring walking through the use of wooden legs. Today, however, custom prosthetics have come a long way in sophistication. Modern technology has provided many benefits that were not available in the past.

Custom prosthetics

Creating a custom artificial limb is a fascinating process, and many measurements must be taken sometimes even prior to an amputation. The advances in prosthetics allow for complete and individualized customization to fit each unique situation. Each patient who has undergone an amputation is unique, and each prosthetic limb must be custom designed to fit the patient’s body.

After the wound has healed and the swelling has gone down, the prosthetist scans the residual limb and creates a plaster mold or fiberglass cast of it to rebuild the prosthesis. They then transform the mold into a positive model for the patient’s limb and modify it to create a wearable interface. To test the fit, the prosthetist creates a clear plastic replica, which they eventually turn into a more durable artificial limb.

Moreover, since every patient is different, the prosthetist must consider the muscles, tendons, bones, and gait of the patient’s residual limb as well as their functional goals (like running or swimming). This requires different approaches, such as our Symphonie Aqua Casting System, Vorum CAD/CAM, and many more traditional casting techniques.

Prosthetists use a range of materials to create artificial limbs, including acrylic resin, carbon fiber, thermoplastics, silicone, aluminum, titanium, or a skin-like covering, if the patient wishes for a more life-like appearance. The prosthetist will fit the artificial limb to the patient, making any necessary adjustments to ensure a proper fit. Patients typically start physical therapy right away to help them learn how to maximize success with the new limb.

Pediatric orthotics and prosthetic services

One division of prosthetics is pediatric. A child may need to work with orthotics or prosthetics for a wide variety of congenital or orthopedic conditions, which can include the following:

  • Scoliosis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Flat feet
  • Foot drop
  • Toe walking
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Spina bifida
  • Upper/lower limb deficiencies

However, no matter the cause, a pediatric team should put the child first and provide them with the best options to support their daily life so that they can achieve independence and participate in school and other desired activities, such as sports.

Certified prosthetists

If you need a prosthesis, it is crucial to work with a licensed and certified prosthetist. These individuals undergo extensive training and must take exams to be certified and approved by a national board of professionals, such as the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics (ABC).


To find a certified prosthetist near you, come meet the caring professional team at Horton’s Orthotics and Prosthetics. We will be happy to set up a complimentary consultation at one of our Arkansas locations. Please contact us today, or call (501) 683-8889 for more information.