How 3D Printing Is Helping Arthritis Patients

3D printing is rapidly gaining a reputation as a tool to aid the medical community as well as the patients they treat. For people with arthritis and the physicians who treat them, 3D printing is gaining reputation as an efficient, precise, and cost-effective solution in many ways.

An Aid for Orthotics

One way that 3D printing helps is in the fabrication of custom-fit artificial splints for arthritis patients. In Sweden, physicians use customized software that allows them to incorporate many fine details into splints for arthritis.

How 3D Printing Is Helping Arthritis

The software allows them to customize the splints for form and fit so it is unique to the physiology of the patient. This is accomplished by using 3D scanning, specialized software, and a high-quality 3D printer.

Volume rendering

In addition to arthritis aids such as splints, surgical models fabricated using 3D printing allows surgeons to understand a patient’s specific anatomy without relying only on a CT scan or MRI view.

By using 3D visualization -- through a technique called volume rendering -- 3D printed models enable surgeons to better appreciate the anatomic features by creating a physical model; one they can touch, see, and feel. This model helps determine the best surgical techniques for a particular patient, should a difficult joint replacement be required.

Joint & hip replacements

Historically, the medical community has been using 3D printing to produce joints for arthritis patients for a while. For the past decade, complex hip replacements have relied on 3D printing to produce part of the artificial hip joint’s plastic cup which is integral to the larger joint configuration.

And it’s not just hips, but also shoulder joint replacements.

For veterans, shoulder joint replacements are common for severe arthritis sufferers. The U.S. Veterans Administration is utilizing 3D printing for shoulder replacement surgery for patient to suffer from arthritis in their shoulder joints.

Such replacement surgery however is often difficult to perform because the small metal bone at the socket side of the shoulder joint can be challenging. This difficulty makes the long-term durability and the lasting effect of such a shoulder replacement difficult, placing its success in jeopardy.

3D models may now be fabricated to replicate the exact joint prior to performing the surgery so that the surgeons can better plan for the surgery, and generate an overall better outcome when the surgery does take place.

Practical Uses for Everyday Living

A more practical use for 3D printed gadgets is for the creation of self-help devices that will allow a person to accomplish tasks much easier.

This is particularly true for people who are suffering from the disease; those suffering, typically find it difficult to accomplish everyday tasks due to the limited motion of their limbs, particularly the hands because of joint pains. As a result, they rely on adaptive tools and aids.

Adaptive tools for arthritis can make the difference in the daily functionality of anyone with arthritis. A few examples include:

  • Grip key holders: these aids allow for a person to use ignition keys without experiencing joint pains.
  • Appliance aids: these aids include toothbrush holders, zippers, food cutters, and many other everyday items.
  • Handle aids: devices such as jar openers, faucet levers, easy-grip tools, and tools with long handles and easy grips that provide aids for people with arthritis that are currently available to facilitate everyday living for them.

However, a big downside of these plastic arthritis aids is cost. With a suitable printer, one can easily fabricate 3D printed gadgets to aid people with arthritis.

Joshua Pearce, the Richard Witte Endowed Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Tech, authored a paper describing such benefits. In the paper, he explained, "Anyone who needs an adaptive aid for arthritis should be 3D printing it."

Below, is a breakdown of the cost difference between purchasing an adaptive aid versus 3D printing it:

With a 3D printer, patients no longer have to buy specially fabricated gadgets and devices from catalogs and far away manufacturers. They can now produce just what they need, when they need it, at a fraction of the cost.

Looking Towards the Future

3D printing is helping arthritis patients in a number of ways:

  • It helps patients at home with customized arthritis aids and 3D printed gadgets.
  • It helps surgeons fabricate complex joint replacements by creating models to assist in surgical planning.
  • It helps fabricate splints and external devices that patients can use to improve their mobility and dexterity.

What 3D printing can do for arthritis patients is emblematic of the many problems in can solve for other medical conditions; it’s a solution that was not widely and readily available only a few years ago. To read more on 3D printing in healthcare, check out: 3D Printing is Entering Hospitals Worldwide