Virginia Tech researchers receive grant to develop smart prosthetic sockets

Published: Oct. 10, 2019 at 9:48 PM EDT
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Researchers at Virginia Tech are working on life-changing technology for people who wear prosthetic limbs. For most amputees, the socket that connects the limb doesn’t fit perfectly, and it can cause extreme discomfort.

Trevor LeMaster has gotten used to wearing prosthetic limbs that haven’t always fit right.

“It’s very difficult to get the right fit for a socket,” LeMaster said. “Prosthetics are a big part of my life, my whole life I’ve been wanting to help people who have helped me.”

LeMaster was born with PFFD, which means his femur was half the normal size, and he was missing a fibula. He wore prosthetics growing up, but chose to have his right leg amputated when he was in fifth grade so he could better wear prosthetics.

He’s working with a team of engineers at Virginia Tech to try to make that socket fit a little more comfortably for himself and other amputees.

“One of the changes that amputees experience is that the size of their limb changes throughout the course of the day,” said Michael Madigan, a professor of industrial and systems engineering. “The problem with that is the fit within the socket changes over the course of the day.”

LeMaster said it’s called pistoning, which means his limb moves up and down when he is walking, causing the discomfort.

“I wear two to three socks to kind of fill that empty space and I wear a belt to keep it on,” he said. “In an ideal world, I would only have to wear one sock and not have to wear a belt.”

“What we’re trying to do with this project is develop some technology to help them maintain a good fit throughout the course of the day which will make it easier for them to go about their lives, do whatever they need to do and hopefully improve the quality of their life,” Madigan said.

“If we can understand how all of these are related to one another, we can get a better understanding of how socket fit and volume change leads to comfort,” said Michael Philen, a professor of aerospace and ocean engineering.

The Virginia Tech College of Engineering recently received a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. They plan to use that money to better understand how and why the size and shape of a limb changes over the course of the day and to build a device that adjusts the size of the socket that the user controls.

The researchers hope to eventually have it be automated, but Madigan said that’s many years down the road.

“It gives us an opportunity to help improve hopefully the quality of life of individuals with amputations,” Madigan said.

Madigan said they would really like to help veterans with this technology.

LeMaster said anyone who experiences trauma to a limb experiences much more discomfort than he does because they have much more muscle mass.

“I really think this technology that we’re working on here can help improve the comfort in amputees’ lives,” LeMaster said.

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