When my oldest son was five or six, he fell down and injured his knee while running poolside in Florida. Although it seemed overkill, I followed obediently as the doctor referred me to a pediatric orthopedist. I will never forget the scene as I opened the door to his office and my two little ones peeked in and then looked back at me, eyes wide with hesitation upon seeing at least 30 seats, virtually all filled with little boys bearing broken arms in a variety of colorful casts. I looked around in horror, seeing my future, imagining falls off of bikes and out of trees and long hours in the emergency room.
As we left that day, the doctor laughed waving my two spirited little boys out the door, and said, “Oh we’ll be seeing you again!” That comment alone may have caused me to hover more than I should have, but up to this point it’s worked. So, while my children thankfully have survived without any broken limbs or even anything close, growing up I had a sprain, my brother had a broken arm, and of course, there was my best friend coming back from skiing in Vail over Christmas with the stereotypical broken wrist and the high school boyfriend with the leg broken during a soccer match (I’m still holding it against him that another girl signed his cast first in ancient history class).
In most of those cases, there seems to be a mysticism about the doctor’s office and ‘what they are going to do.’ From the X-rays and the serious discussion over what’s happened to a very important limb, to the slings and plaster or fiberglass casts, it’s almost exciting—until the pain medicine wears off. When you think about it though—and perhaps watch a few too many adventure movies—common sense would say that in a pinch you could pull together something on your own.
That’s exactly what Reddit user 3driven thought, upon breaking a fifth metacarpal (the pinkie). 3driven, or Paavo Pirhonen of Helsinki, Finland, is a radiographer and electrical engineering student. While any break is extremely painful, there are obviously much more serious fractures. Not to downplay 3driven’s injury, but if you were going to attempt to 3D print your own brace, this is probably one of the better breaks to experiment with. An active cyclist, 3driven broke the hand after colliding with a car.
“I was cycling back home from work and some guy decided to cross the main cycling path with an attitude ‘anyone that comes from the left side will stop for me.’ That took me by surprise and I hit his rear tire and fell on my left hip and both hands,” said 3driven on Reddit. “I don’t exactly remember how I didn’t notice him. But I do remember flying in slow motion after the hit. Luckily only left hand broke with some bruises and blood here and there.”
3driven 3D printed a brace and wore it for four weeks. Originally being given a brace that was very uncomfortable and even painful, 3driven was highly motivated to make a device that would be more tolerable for a month—with the only feature missing being that of support bars. Bandages worked just fine to help add rigidity to the material, and were only needed for several weeks as the hand healed so quickly—and, notably, quite well. The first more traditional brace also served as a model for the improved 3D printed one.
“…the design was approved by my treating doctor,” stated 3driven. “I also work in the field myself.”
“My orthopedist approved my design saying that if it feels good, then it’s good. The fracture was stable and thus a fixed cast wasn’t needed. He also said that it was hard to prevent the healing process. So it was safe.”
Using Autodesk Inventor Professional 2016 and then 3D printing with PLA, the brace was effective, but not durable in terms of holding up during activities like taking a hot bath.
“… the molding part with PLA was a time consuming process,” said 3driven. “It wasn’t enough to soak the PLA in ~80°C water, but I also had to use heat gun. Eventually I used (somewhat) heat protective clothing to help the molding process while the brace was on my hand. Softened the edges to make it more comfortable.”
“In radiotherapy they use plastics that mold better and slower on ~70°C so maybe a specialized plastic would suit this need more properly.”
With this particular design, also shared on Thingiverse, 3driven was able to remove the brace daily, wash it, and even go swimming. The ‘medical maker’ is planning on exploring the use of other materials in refining the design further, however, and even making some braces for other types of fractures. 3driven received a great number of comments on the Reddit post. While most were concerned with the materials used and some even had some suggestions, such as using T-Lyne from taulman 3D or other alternatives, a number of the Reddit users commenting were concerned about the medical angle.
As stated, 3driven had the okay from a doctor, but concerns were still raised about individuals using an open-source design to make a brace, perhaps without attaining a doctor’s approval. One would hope that people are adult enough to take care of themselves properly, but as one nurse commented, many homemade medical devices do go ‘horribly wrong.’
This isn’t the only success we’ve seen, however, in ‘homemade medical devices,’ as resourceful 3D printing enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to make everything fromcustomized scoliosis treatments to 3D printed orthodontics and even orthotics. And while there may be medical concerns, those acting independently to make such devices enjoyed the rewards of great affordability, previously unheard of customizations, and self-sustainability in design, production, and turnaround. Is this something you would be comfortable with doing?