People who have suffered a life-changing injury are getting a helping hand at Morriston Hospital using innovative 3D printing technology.
Specialists at the hospital and a leading innovation centre in Cardiff have teamed up with patients to create and test 3D printed splints to protect and support the hands of people with brachial plexus injuries.
The brachial plexus nerves connect the spine to the upper limb and control movement and sensation in the arm and hand.
L-r: Leif Thobroe, Tom Wheeler and Marc Lloyd
Depending on the severity of their injury, people can lose the use of their shoulder, elbow, hand or even their entire arm from the shoulder down.
Prototype splints are now being tested by two young sportsmen who both lost the use of their right arm because of brachial plexus injuries.
They have received treatment at the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital, which provides an all-Wales service for people with such injuries.
They tend to affect younger, more active people, many of whom have to wear splints to protect their wrists and hands from injury and to maintain good position.
These splints are usually made of cloth and fastened with Velcro – but they are not particularly attractive and hard for the patient to do up themselves.
The Morriston-based service has the only two brachial plexus surgeons in Wales, Dean Boyce and Hywel Dafydd, as well as the only specialist brachial plexus physiotherapist, Marc Lloyd.
Marc said: “It’s a life-changing injury which means they may have to wear splints and supports for the rest of their life.
“Many of our patients have no or little control over their arm or hand so they tend to flail around when the patients are walking.
“The splint keeps their wrist and hand in a good position and provides protection from burns and blunt trauma.
Splint 2“The Velcro splints are difficult to get on and off with one hand.
“But they are also unattractive for a 20-year-old to wear. So we are trying to create something that is more functional, more wearable and desirable.”
The development of the 3D printed splints is the result of a three-way project between Marc, brachial plexus patient Tom Wheeler, and Dominic Eggbeer, head of Surgical Design at PDR, the leading design consultancy and applied research centre located with Cardiff Metropolitan University.
Tom, from Newport, had a brachial plexus injury during a mountain bike accident in the Neath Valley in 2011.
Undeterred, he started learning to ride in a different way, modified his bike and developed a brace that allowed him to hold the handlebar with his paralysed arm.
“After the accident I was lucky enough to end up in Morriston Hospital where there are some really good specialists,” said Tom, who has been treated by surgeon Dean Boyce and by Marc.
“It soon became quite obvious there was a lack of wrist supports to help with brachial plexus injuries.”
“I was looking for something minimal. All the wrist supports I’ve had were very medical and stood out, and the more I was recovering the less I wanted it to look like I had an injury.”
The patient’s arm is 3D scanned and the information sent to Dominic at PDR where the cast is 3D printed. It’s then fitted to the patient, after any necessary final adjustments have been made.
Marc said: “We’re still in the prototype stage, having just produced our final first design.
“It has a little face for a watch and can be printed in any colour or pattern. You can even have your name on it, so you can really personalise it in any way you want.
“The casts are tied with bungee cords, which make them easier to get on and off. We’ve really tried to think of ways to make them more functional, user friendly and appealing to the patient.”
Left: The old splint and (below it) the new 3D printed version
Tom is testing one of the prototypes, as is 23-year-old Leif Thobroe from Cwmtwrch in the Swansea Valley.
Leif had three operations after being injured in a rugby tackle last year. Unfortunately he still cannot use his right arm, though that hasn’t stopped him winning British and European kickboxing medals.
He said: “Because I have no control over my wrist I could easily dislocate or hurt it. The splint provides a good level of support.
“It’s better than the material ones because it’s more solid, it’s more durable. It’s really good.”
Marc said the project was ground breaking. “There’s nobody else in the world that has actually produced anything like this.
“Once we’re happy with the prototype and satisfied with the fit and function of the design it could be used for numerous other conditions such as fractures and stroke patients.”