Researchers and students at Michigan Technological University have used a 3D printer to create adaptive aids for arthritis patients, which could help people perform daily tasks such as opening doors or getting dressed. The devices are a small fraction of the cost of commercial alternatives, meet or improve on existing standards, and are customizable for individual patients.
The CDC estimates that almost 25% of the U.S. population suffers from some form of arthritis. The disease can make routine tasks, such as turning a key in a lock, difficult or nearly impossible for sufferers. In addition, sufferers earn lower salaries than the average, but are forced to spend more on medical expenses.
Adaptive aids, which are typically simple pieces of plastic, are available to make it easier for arthritis patients to grip and manipulate objects. However, they are frequently very expensive. For example, a commercially available phone holder aid can cost $49 dollars, but a 3D-printed alternative could be as little as 79 cents.
“It never ceases to amaze me what a small piece of plastic sells for,” said Joshua Pearce, a researcher involved in the study. “Anyone who needs an adaptive aid for arthritis should be 3-D printing it.” Pearce invited his students to have a go at 3D printing versions of existing devices.
The class printed a wide array of devices, and 20 of their creations meet or exceed the standard of commercial devices, but at a fraction of the cost. The devices can also be customized to suit the needs of specific patients, and the designs can account for patient-specific parameters such as hand size and grip strength.
The students used printers that cost $500 or less, and their designs are freely available, suggesting that arthritis patients who use a lot of aids could benefit by buying their own 3D printers. “We printed and analyzed 20 different products and each one has a great return on investment, even for people who can use insurance to purchase adaptive aids with a co-pay, and a printer pays for itself easily,” said Pearce. “[However,] we’re not saying an 85-year-old with no personal computer experience is developing a CAD from scratch and prototyping a design 12 times.”
Indeed, it may not be realistic to expect every arthritis patient to buy their own printer, especially people who are unfamiliar with the technology, and so doctors’ offices, nursing homes, physical therapy clinics, and even libraries, may be able to offer a centralized location where people can print their own adaptive aids, with a bit of assistance.