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Prosthetics or prosthesis: what’s the difference?


In everyday language, ‘prosthetics’ or ‘prosthesis’ are often used as interchangeable terms. In essence, both refer to the same thing. If you or a loved one lose a limb after an amputation, it might be that an artificial replacement is one of the options available to you. But it’s important to know the difference between the two terms – and how prosthetic design can help you.

In this guide, discover the difference between prosthetics and prosthesis. We’ll also look at how artificial limbs can be designed and used either for functional or cosmetic reasons – or both.

Prosthetics vs Prosthesis: The definition

What is prosthetic?

The term ‘prosthetic’ is sometimes used to describe an artificial limb. But the term ’prosthetics’ actually means the branch of medicine where replacement body parts are created for and fitted onto the individual.

‘Prosthetic’ can, however, be used as a descriptive term for such parts e.g. a prosthetic leg.

What is prosthesis?

A ‘prosthesis’ is the name for the artificial body part itself – whether it’s an upper or lower limb. When there’s more than one part or piece involved, these are called ‘prostheses’.

Why might I need a prosthesis?

It’s not easy for someone to come to terms with amputation. Losing a limb often has a profound and lifelong impact on the person involved. It can also affect their loved ones. In some cases, an amputation is the result of a medical condition – such as diabetes. But the loss of a limb can also be the result of a traumatic accident that wasn’t your fault.

If this should ever happen to you or someone close to you, a prosthesis could help you with your recovery. In the event of a lower leg amputation, for example, prosthetics can create an artificial body part that functions – and maybe even looks – like the lost limb. With it, you can regain any lost mobility and maintain your independence long into the future.

What are cosmetic prosthetics?

Some prosthetic limbs are purely cosmetic and are called cosmesis (or cosmeses). A cosmesis is designed to mirror a person’s skin tone and appearance. It typically has little or no functionality. But the difference that such sophisticated cosmetic solutions can have is often enormous.

A cosmesis can provide a huge confidence boost to anyone who loses a limb – or suffers severe scarring. It can enable you or your loved one to be active and socialise once again. In turn, this can also help to support their overall recovery and mental wellbeing after an amputation.

What are functional prosthetics?

In theory, a prosthesis can be used as a substitution for any body part – such as eyes, ears, feet or hands. But they are more often used as full – or partial replacement – for missing limbs. Using a functional prosthetic implant, it can replace a leg or a hand. And the aim of these artificial body parts is to work as closely as possible to the ‘real thing’.

There are two types of prosthetics that can be used to restore function when a limb is lost. These are upper limb prosthetics or lower limb prosthetics.

Prosthetic design

By its very nature, prosthetic design aims to perform a specific function to you or a loved one to do certain tasks. As such, designs can differ a lot. Of course, this always depends on the role of the prosthesis – and what function it needs to provide to the individual e.g. the ability to walk.

The design of a high-tech prosthetic hand like the Touch Bionic i-limb Quantum, for example, aims to let you carry out tasks that require fine motor skills. Made from titanium and silicone, it features sensors and microprocessors that let you control your hand.

Ottobock’s 1E90 Sprinter, meanwhile, is designed for high-performance athletes and is made from highly durable, lightweight carbon fibre. This means it can withstand the forces generated when sprinting.

Both these examples of prostheses are worlds apart in terms of their design and build. Yet both are on the cutting edge of prosthetic development too. And the availability of new materials and microprocessors is evolving prosthetic design further still.

In addition, there are also new ways to connect an artificial body part with a residual limb – like osseointegration. With this, you (or a loved one) can now choose from a broad range of options that can help you regain much of the mobility and independence you enjoyed before amputation. 

How do prosthetics work?

For a prosthetic limb to work, there are two key factors that combine to have the desired effect. The first is mechanical – relating to prosthetic fitting after amputation and how it’s attached to an individual. The second is control – or how the individual can make the prosthesis do its job.

Both these mechanical and control factors are influenced by the design and intended use of the artificial limb. The i-Limb Quantum prosthetic hand, for example, can be attached with titanium rods that are anchored directly into the residual limb.

By doing this, it can create as natural a connection as possible – a surgical technique known as osseointegration. Using electrodes, signals are transferred from the part of the limb that hasn’t been amputated to the prosthetic. And this is what causes the movement of the prosthesis. It’s known as Target Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) and allows for more intuitive control by the user.

Other methods of controlling an artificial limb include cables. In the case of a prosthetic arm, for example, a strap or harness on the opposite shoulder can be moved in such a way to create the desired movement in the arm. In more complicated joints such as the knee, however, advances in hydraulics and lighter materials now offer more control for lower leg amputation prosthetics.

For activities such as sprinting, meanwhile, the forces generated are extreme. So, it means that the 1E90 blade – for example – is attached to the residual limb using a tight socket. The aim of this is to spread the energy across a larger area. This can prevent damage to the residual limb.

Users of the 1E90 control the prosthetic purely using body weight, as well as pressure from the residual limb and the ground. There are no wires, processors or electrics of any kind involved. 

How can Shoosmiths help?

We appreciate that losing a limb can be life changing. If you have suffered an amputation as a result of someone else’s fault, you need the advice of a specialist solicitor who is experienced in dealing with amputation claims.  At Shoosmiths, our specialist amputation claims solicitors are legal experts and are experienced in providing holistic support and advice to secure the compensation and support you need to rebuild your life.

When you don’t know where to turn or what comes next, we can help show you the way. This includes working with prosthetics specialists to see if a prosthesis could help you.

Why not find out more about how our friendly team can help? Call us now or send us a message today and talk to us in confidence – and free of charge.



This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2022

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