Thursday, June 2, 2011

Prosthetics users receive online assistance with i-LIMB

From The Buffalo News:

Sue Muscarella (pictured), who was born with a right arm that ends just below her elbow, was fitted with her first prosthetic limb at age 2.

Her newest prosthesis, the i-LIMB Hand, employs a miniature computer and sensors that allow her to open and close the fingers of the hand, and to turn her wrist, by flexing her arm.

When Muscarella wanted to learn how to control the i-LIMB with more precision, she couldn't easily turn to other local prosthesis users because so few live in the area.

Through a Google search, she found a woman in Spokane, Wash., who posted videos demonstrating how she used her i-LIMB.

Carrie Davis, the woman behind the video, has a website that serves as an online community and peer-to-peer support network for people who use prosthetic limbs.

"The whole website is so important," said Muscarella, 53, of Kenmore, particularly for people who lose a limb later in life. "They don't think they're ever going to be able to do the things they used to."

Muscarella and hundreds of others who use prosthetic arms and legs have received practical advice and encouragement through the videos and forums on

Davis didn't have such help when she was growing up without her lower left arm.

"I didn't know anyone else who didn't have an arm. I thought I was the only one in the world," Davis, 39, a peer mentor for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, said during her visit to the Hanger location in Amherst.

In 2007, about 1.7 million Americans were living with a lost limb, according to the Amputee Coalition of America.

Some were born without a limb -- this happens in 1 in 3,846 live births -- but many lose an arm or leg to disease, accident or wartime injuries.

Most amputations today involve toes, feet or legs as a result of complications from Type 2 diabetes, said Chris Van Dusen, owner of Nelson Prosthetic & Orthotic Laboratory in Cheektowaga.

The rise in diabetes-driven cases is offsetting advances in medicine that allow surgeons to save more limbs following traumatic injuries and accidents.

Nelson, where Muscarella has gotten her prosthetic devices for years, fits about 275 per year.

Companies such as Hanger and Nelson try to fit clients with the proper limb, which involves physical and psychological assessments. "You're trying to get their whole life in half an hour," Van Dusen said.

Many people have different devices for different tasks.

Davis, for example, has a mechanical arm, with hooks, to use in her garden, another arm that can hold a dumbbell for the gym and another for swimming.

The i-LIMB used by Davis and Muscarella relies on a microprocessor and sensors that rest on the arm and pick up on subtle muscle movement to move the fingers and wrist. The prosthesis is covered in a glove of silicone rubber "skin."

Relatively few Americans use prosthetic limbs -- about 199,000 in 1994, with just 26,000 using a prosthetic arm, the amputee coalition reports.

Years ago, Muscarella met a woman at a park who also used a prosthetic arm, a rare event.

The woman came up to Muscarella and asked her how she had done her hair in a pony tail, so Muscarella undid her hair and tied it back up to show her.

Now, people can turn to such websites as for advice and peer support.

"People can ask them questions. They don't have to wait until they run into somebody in a park," Muscarella said.

She is particularly moved by a photo slide show produced by "Hugh," a member of the site who lost one lower leg in a motorcycle accident in 2009.

The slide show, set to Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying," shows how Hugh bounced back from his crash and later went skydiving, jet-skiing and scuba diving.

"This is what it's all about!!!! This guy is awesome. A total godsend to folks who lost a leg," Muscarella wrote in a message to a reporter.

Davis, who started the site in 2009, works as a patient advocate in Hanger's upper-extremity prosthetics program, traveling around the country to meet with the company's clients.