High Tech

Silicone “Skin” for Prosthetic Limbs

Otto Bock C Leg ProsthesisThe prosthetic legs I’m most familiar with are the high tech, robotic-looking, high-functioning type that athletes use (like the one at left, from Otto Bock), so I was interested to see Heather Mills last night in a dancing competition. Ms. Mills, best-known for her entanglement with former Beatle Paul McCartney, lost a leg many years ago in an accident, and is generally photographed wearing a prosthesis designed to look much like her unharmed leg.

Historically, a lot of function has been sacrificed if a prosthesis must also look like the limb it has replaced. For hard-core types, this isn’t an issue — function really is a lot more important than style, and getting the job done well matters much more than the stares and double-takes from uncomprehending others when there’s an unexpected glimpse of a hook or a titanium shin.

Silicone Leg ComesisOn occasion, though, appearances do matter. They do in the case of Ms. Mills, who has built her fame on a sometime modelling career and on celebrity appearances. Rightly or wrongly, there are times when an obvious technical prosthesis can overwhelm and subsume interactions with others and detract from the business at hand, even for people who aren’t marketing themselves on the basis of their physical appearance.

Sometimes, too, people who have lost limbs simply want a prosthesis that looks, wears and fits under clothing like the limb they’ve lost. For Ms. Mills, and for everyone else who seeks a human-like verisimilitude in a prosthetic limb, there have been some interesting developments in prosthetic cosmetics.

Foot ComesisMs. Mills, for whom cost has been, recently, no object, wears over her prosthesis a custom-made silicone “comesis” — a silicone “skin” that has been customized to match her unharmed leg. Hers was made by Dorset Orthopaedic, a UK firm, at a reported cost of 18,000 British pounds. In the past, cosmetic options have been quite limited, but technology now allows silicone to be subtly tinted to match natural skin tones. Veining, discolorations and other customizations are also possible; on hands, acrylic “fingernails” can be installed so that nail polish can be used, removed, and replaced.

NHS Silicone Comesis ColorsA silicone comesis pulls up over the prosthetic like a sock and is expected to last from two to three years when maintained with care. Dorset offers a non-customized version (price not stated) in 22 skin shades; this picture from the National [UK] Health Service shows a huge number of available shades.

Silicone Baby Doll TrioSilicone’s translucency and skin-like texture have become important components of various segments of the doll industry. Artists tint the material to create life-like coloring, with quite startling (and pricey) results. If you follow this link, you can get some idea of how amazing small fingers can look; this particular doll has an integrated silicone-over-vinyl “skin”, presumably to keep the cost down a bit, while retaining the soft silicone feel. The trio on the left are all silicone.

There’s a corollary industry of life-size silicone dolls for lonely guys, but you’re on your own if you want to find those.

How did Ms. Mills do in the dancing competition? In terms of legwork, beautifully. Admittedly, her partner supported her brilliantly at several critical moments, but Ms. Mills’ dancing feet moved fluidly and gracefully. Her upper body told a bit of a different story, though, as she appeared to hold herself too rigidly at times, and her facial expression indicated more stress than one would hope to see on the face of such a competent competitor. Whether this was due to her recent marital woes, a lack of dancing experience, or (as the judges seemed to think) concern about the performance of her prosthesis I cannot say.

Baby doll trio from Linda Keys Gallery of Dolls.

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