Scientists are testing powered prosthetic ankles for amputees

Reporter: Amy Oshier Writer: Jasmine Singletary
Published: Updated:
prosthetic ankles

Scientists are testing powered prosthetics ankles that could be game-changing for amputees.

55-year-old Greg Phillips was on his way home on Labor Day 2013, when a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle.

“It was called a compression fracture in which the foot was crushed between an 850-pound motorcycle and the rear axle of a car,” Phillips said.

After two years of fighting infection and instability, Phillips and his doctors agreed to amputate.

“I decided to take the leg off because I would be healthier,” Phillips said.

But traditional prosthetics also require the wearer to compensate with their hips or back.

Dr. Helen Huuang, a Biomedical Engineer at NC University & UNC Chapel Hill said, “It doesn’t provide power, doesn’t provide enough range of motion.”

In this lab at North Carolina State University, biomedical engineers are studying how these prosthetic ankles can restore more natural movement.

Dr. Aaron Fleming, a Biomedical Engineer at NC University & UNC Chapel Hill said, “The difference of our prosthesis is that we’re actually giving control to people by using the muscle signals that are still there, even after amputation.”

Fleming attaches sensors to track Phillips’ calf muscles. With the device on, he is able to stand up from a chair without using his arms.

Phillips can walk with a fluid motion, and bend to pick up objects. While the powered ankle isn’t commercially available yet, he says he’d like to have one someday.

“I’m hoping so. I’m putting my money on Aaron.” Phillips said.

The team is working to improve natural movement for Phillips, and thousands of others.

The researchers say before the technology could be made more widely available, it would be important to test the prosthetics in real-world settings as they go through their daily routines. That would help the scientists assess the reliability of the devices.

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