Splints printed in 3D, replacements for plaster casts
A Spanish company is using a Witbox 2 to design and print immobilisation splints that offer numerous advantages over traditional plaster casts.
Raquel Serrano, a Malaguenian industrial designer, dines in a restaurant with her boyfriend. Beside her, a child cries and complains because his plaster cast is heavy and causes itching. Raquel, who had already used a 3D printer (a Prusa i3 Hephestos) for her final year project, and still uses it to make bracelets, believes that this technology is the key to improving the quality of life for patients with injuries and fractures. From that quotidian moment Fiixit was born, a Spanish company that designs custom splints with the potential to replace plaster casts.
“I spoke with an orthopaedist, Antonio Padilla, now my associate. At first he said I was crazy, that it couldn't be done. I also told a doctor about it, who thought it was a great idea”
The designer began testing them on friends and family without pathologies, until the summer of 2016 brought her first patient: a seven year old boy with a broken ulna. The Fiixit team 3D-scanned him and then designed an immobilisation splint for his elbow, which they later replaced with one that immobilised his wrist only..
“The parents told me that his progress was amazing. As it was so light, a sling was unnecessary and consequently his back didn't hurt (one of the main disadvantages of plaster casts). Our splints are lightweight, which let the boy play at the beach, swim… everyday activities that a broken arm usually keeps you from doing”, says Raquel.
One year has passed since this first case and today, Fiixit has become a Social Security approved manufacturer. It works with several orthopaedic shops, a private hospital and a public one, the latter two in Malaga. Patients are sent to them through two channels: the first, thanks to the traumatologists from the Public Health Service who prescribe splints at no charge to the patient. For now, they mainly prescribe these for children as it is a lot more costly to do so for adults, however, the latter can go to a private clinic (the second channel) and get a referral to an orthopaedics shop. Depending on the type of splint, the cost can range from 120 to 250 euro.
Once the order reaches Fiixit, the first thing the team team does is 3D scan the patient's injured limb, a process that takes just 20 seconds. Then they upload the image to their platform and start designing the splint taking into consideration the pathology, colour (the person ordering may choose its colour), lining and if it is to be personalised with a name or not. Raquel specifies that “the splints are designed taking the injury into account, which is the same immobilisation technique used for plaster casts”. Finally, this is printed with a Witbox 2 at the company's facilities or the orthopaedic shop.
Faster recuperation, better quality of life
The splints are made of PLA, and one of the main advantages this material has over plaster is lightness: they weigh very little, obviate the need for a sling and afford the patient better mobility. The design is hygienic, breathable and open.
Another important advantage, especially in summer, is that the splint is submersible, letting the patient shower or visit the beach or pool without hassle. It also facilitates physiotherapy treatments, allowing the “application of electrode pads while the splint is fitted, which can't be done with plaster casts. These stimulate the muscles preventing tissue adhesion and the loss of mass and strength, thus reducing recuperation time”. The splints can be fitted and removed, and according to Raquel, “in the case of serious sprains it's important for a physiotherapist to be able to treat the affected area, so a splint that can be taken off and put back on is very useful”.
“With this product, a wound would be in direct contact with the air eliminating the possibility of infection. This isn't the case with plaster as it covers the entire skin surface. Furthermore, sun exposure is good for the bone”
Since they started working with Social Security, Raquel and her team have seen an increase in orders, and they hope to form more agreements with orthopaedic shops in September. They are also conducting a clinical study with official data in order to demonstrate the difference in patient recuperation with respect to using these splints or plaster casts. With these results in hand they hope to prove that 3D printing is capable of improving the recuperation and quality of life of hundreds of people whose days continue to be constrained by plaster casts.