From Neon to Plastic: Quickening the Road to Recovery

It’s itchy. It’s neon. And it’s probably covered with your friends’ wishes to get better soon— at least, you hope so.

The age-old story of fracturing a bone and then being stuck in an uncomfortable plaster cast for weeks on end is lived by many individuals each year. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reported that at least 6 million people annually break a bone. For many of these injuries, the orthopedic plaster paves the road to recovery. But recently, the uncomfortable neon plaster is being revolutionized into a simpler, lighter plastic cast.

3D printing is leading the movement of personalized medicine. Founding a startup called Mediprint in Mexico, Zaid Musa Badwa is one of the pioneers of the recently developed technique that implements a scanner to make a personalized map of an individual’s limbs, which is then made into a cast by the 3D printers. The intended model boasts many benefits—from a speedier recovery to more mobility. Because of the light and open structure, the cast would allow doctors to use supplementary treatments such as ultrasound to help the bone heal faster.

These benefits of 3D printed casts can transform the experience of individuals with fractured bones and, for MVHS athletes, help them to get back on the field.

To the sidelines

Junior Ruhi Kore is just one of many MVHS athletes whose season was cut short because of personal injuries. One typical nightly soccer practice ended with more than a strain in Kore’s left ankle. For Kore, sprains in her legs after soccer are not uncommon so when the doctor had shown that, in fact, she had fractured an important bone in her ankle, she was shocked.

“My mom and I went to the doctor’s office and they actually found a fracture…which was actually pretty unexpected,” Kore said. “It was minor fracture but it was in the bone that holds up your weight.”

The severity of the injury unfortunately ended Kore’s season as the JV soccer team’s goalie. Although she still attended games to cheer on her teammates, Kore missed most of her soccer season since she had to be in a cast for six weeks. However, the injury did more to her life than stopping her from playing a sport that she had enjoyed since 5th grade. Kore found simple tasks such as climbing stairs more difficult.

Infographic by Srijani Saha.

The injury had not only altered her life with soccer but also with her daily activities. The current type of cast, unlike the 3D printed cast, is more restrictive, non-waterproof, itchy and extremely uncomfortable. The cast was a physical limitation, rendering her nearly incapable from going about her routine. For many MVHS athletes, injuries accompanied with the road to recovery are difficult but not uncommon.

“Last season we started off with the other goalie with a concussion,” said Kore. “It’s common for a couple girls to be iced after practice, to have sprains [and other more serious injuries].”

In contact sports such as soccer, athletes are constantly in risk of being injured and so it is necessary for a quick recovery to get back on the field and out from the sidelines. The lighter 3D printed casts provide hope for a more comfortable and effective recovery.

“I think 3D printing can cut down a lot of the effects of an injury on an athlete,” said Kore. “If I could have gotten access to these casts, I feel like I could have gotten back on the field faster and the injury would not have affected my overall life [as much].”

In the sidelines
Athletic trainer Javier Margarito works in his office after school. The future of 3D printing could potentially quicken recovery times and personalize treatment. Photo by Srijani Saha.

After school you can always find the door of MVHS athletic trainer Javier Margarito open. Inside, athletes are always being checked for their injuries. As a second year staff memberof MVHS, Margarito finds that although sprains and other minor injuries are quite common, fractures in bones are more rare and that much more serious. When it comes to recovery times, he finds that the current casts are beneficial, but additional therapy is still required.

“Athletes usually get braces made of some sort of cast material so that they can get the swelling down,” says Margarito. “There’s different ways to manipulate that [the] recovery time…electrical therapy, even heat therapy.”

Because of the design of the 3D printed casts allows doctors greater access to the injury, such therapy techniques are more able to be used to quicken recovery times by 40 to 80% according to TedCrunch. Several prototypes include an electrical stimulator and/or an ultrasound drivers to stimulate bone recovery and growth. Moreover, because of the personalization of 3D printed casts, the cast is fit nearly perfectly to the body, thus reducing the risk of bone misalignment during the recovery stage and taking away the need for surgery to fix the bone after the swelling has decreased. The open structure also allows for daily cleaning of the cast, thus avoiding personal hygiene issues that are commonly faced with the plaster or fiberglass casts.

The rise of personalized medicine through 3D printing is promising change in the treatments for injuries such as fractures. For MVHS students, this could mean more play time after a speedy recovery, even if that means if they have to trade in their neon pink casts.