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Orthotic and Prosthetic Technicians


Throughout history, societies have sought ways to replace lost limbs with artificial devices and to support or correct the function of weak body parts. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans studied and knew a great deal about dislocations, muscular paralysis, and other musculoskeletal disorders. The famous Greek physician Galen introduced some of the terms still used in the design of orthotic devices and described therapies to accompany their use. The Egyptians began experimenting with splints around 5,000 years ago, and archaeologists have discovered evidence that even prehistoric people made use of crude braces and splints.

The modern origins of both orthotics and prosthetics are usually traced to the 16th century French surgeon Ambroise Paré. Some of the orthotic and prosthetic devices dating from that century include metal corsets, splints made out of leather and other materials for deformities of the hips and legs, special shoes, and solid metal hands.

During the 17th century, the field of orthotics in England progressed rapidly. This was spurred, at least in part, by the Poor Relief Act of 1601, which created some government responsibility for the disabled. The introduction of splints and braces to treat deformities arising from rickets dates from this time. It was also during this era that leather-covered wooden hands and single metal hooks were introduced to replace lost hands.

During more recent centuries, improvements in design and materials have generally come during or after major wars, especially World War I and World War II. Following World War II, for instance, prosthetic designers discovered new lightweight plastics for use in artificial arms and hands. The process of cineplasty, in which a part of the control mechanism inside a mechanical prosthesis is attached to the end of a patient's bicep muscle, allows for finer control over the moving parts of the prosthesis. All of these developments have made prosthetics more sophisticated, useful, and lifelike.

Similar dramatic developments have occurred in the field of orthotics during the past two centuries. During the 19th century, some of the most famous practitioners in this field, such as Hugh Owen Thomas, Sir Robert Jones, and James Knight, developed many of the appliances and treatments we use today. Development in this field led to greater specialization; orthopedic surgeons began writing "prescriptions" for the kinds of braces needed by their patients. Orthotists then designed and built them.

Growth in both fields was spurred in the 20th century by World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Other factors have been an increase in sports-related injuries, automobile accidents, war-related injuries, and an aging baby boomer population. Finally, the new developments have allowed more ailments to be successfully treated with orthotics and prosthetics and have further stimulated growth of the field. This has led to yet further specialization and to the need for specially trained technicians to assist orthotists and prosthetists in their duties.

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