By: 29 April 2020
Upper limb prosthetics heading towards a smart future

Sabyasachi Ghosh and Sharvari Rale, of Future Market Insights (FMI), considers the innovations that could disrupt the orthopaedic prosthetics space and sheds light upon the progress of upper limb prosthetics

The field of orthopaedics has been witnessing multiple breakthrough innovations recently, and prostheses particularly continue to converge with myriads of state-of-the-art technologies, which signals the influx of some promising outcomes on the horizon of orthopaedics.


Some quick facts

  • Orthopaedic health issues constitute the most common reason to seek expert medical care, globally.
  • Besides diabetes and osteoarthritis, osteomalacia, hyperparathyroidism, ricketing, Paget’s bone disease, osteoporosis, osteopenia, and incomplete osteogénesis are some of the key ailments causing various upper limb conditions.
  • On an average, more than seven million patients undergo hospitalisation (annually) for their orthopaedic conditions, in the US alone.
  • One out of seven Americans registers at least one orthopaedic impairment.
  • More than one million limb amputations are registered globally, each year, a majority of which are related to upper extremities.


WMSDs and sports injuries fuel upper limb prosthetics

Accidental injuries and trauma continue to rank top when it comes to reviewing the causes of upper and lower limb amputations, whereas diabetes remains among the major risk factors associated with limb amputations. Lower backache has become one of the most frequently reported orthopaedic ailments, following knee and hip joint pain. While these conditions typically tend to appear with age, limb injuries and amputations also constitute a significant factor demanding critical attention.

Upper limb conditions are particularly referred to as WMSDs (work-related musculoskeletal disorders), besides those that have been the result of road accidents or lifestyle diseases. Sports injuries also remain a notable cause of upper limb disorders and/or impairment.


Prosthetic wrist in demand, US ranks top

Of the total orthopaedic prosthetics industry, upper extremities hold more than a 15 per cent share, which could grow at an impressive pace in the near future. Upper limb prosthetics currently represent a young market that valuates just about USD 300 million. However, the growth potential is massive, with increasing acceptance of upper limb prosthetic devices among amputees, all over the globe.

More than 25 per cent of the upper limb prosthetics that were sold in 2018 were wrists, followed by elbows and shoulders. An alarming rise in the number of wrist amputations offers a boost to sales of the prosthetic wrist, which is further complemented by its lightweight, cosmetically pleasing design, and easy wearability. The relatively affordable cost of a prosthetic wrist continues to be an important factor as well. Prosthetic arms, however, currently hold a negligible share in the market, and they are most likely to observe an upward trend in demand, at an average 6 per cent rate through the next decade. Shoulder disarticulation remains among the most common sports injuries, further indicating a potential opportunity for prosthetic shoulders.

While the global sales of upper limb prosthetics are set to surpass a value of USD 345 million this year, more than 35 per cent would be accounted by the US. Europe is also an important market for manufacturing companies in this space. However, sales in Asian markets will ramp up at an average 6 per cent over the following years. The rate of prevalence of orthopaedic ailments remains highest in the US, but is showcasing dramatic increase across developing Asian countries, over the past few years. This is translating into greater demand for orthopaedic prosthetic implants across Asia, especially for upper limbs.


3D printing – A silver bullet to cover customisation and costs

Solid entry of next-generation technologies in surgical space, coupled with adoption of the most relevant personalised approach towards healthcare delivery, is carving out the future of orthopaedic surgery. Customised prosthetics have therefore gathered traction over the past decade. Tailored orthopaedic prosthetic devices constitute a recent innovation in the industry and a product of pre-operative 3D imaging software. They allow for fabrication of tailor-made prosthetics based on the functionality and anatomy of an individual patient.

Made available in an array of sizes and lengths, these prosthetic devices are specifically designed to perfectly match the desired geometries of an amputee’s lost limb or a part of limb, delivering the desired fit and comfort. Over the past few years, use of 3D printing technology has gained prominence in the field of prosthetics, particularly benefiting those amputees that are unable to afford conventional limb prosthetics. The technology is already being used for arms, hands, wrists, and lower extremities. New refined designs continue to emerge and several open source companies are stepping in this process.

Although the materials used in the 3D printing of prosthetic limbs are yet to match the long-term endurance of those used in conventional prosthetics, it cannot be understated that the overall cost of making them reduces by almost 90 per cent. 3D printing seems to be the only silver bullet for prosthetists in an effort to cover both personalisation and price point. Cheaper prosthetics are already ushering in the era of cosmetic and designer prostheses and it will soon be a reality, with mass production compatibility. Paediatric orthopaedic limbs will be a highly lucrative area of investment for producers of 3D printed prosthetic implants.


Prosthetic limbs going real smart?

The gap between real and prosthetic is shrinking. Prosthetic limbs are going smart and adaptive, which is supposed to empower artificial appendages with some extraordinary abilities. With these smart prosthetics, amputees would be able to perform near-normal functions. Biomedical engineers have been working on such smart prosthetic limbs that embody human-machine interfaces and feel just like an extension of the amputee’s body. Although smart prosthetic limbs are not a reality yet, they hold massive potential to reflect human-like sensation and reflexes in an intuitive way. The major challenges road blocking these developments in the industry will be those facing the appropriate transition of technology from labs, and FDA approvals.

A recent innovation of an artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled bionic hand is paving the way for next-generation prosthetic limbs that allow for easier movements during routine activities. Besides AI, brain-controlled robotics and advanced battery technologies are taking abilities of smart prosthetic limbs to the next level.




Sabyasachi Ghosh heads FMI’s healthcare, pharmaceuticals and medical devices domain. The insights presented in this article are based on FMI’s research findings about the global orthopaedic prosthetics industry and the upper limb prosthetics market.

Sharvari Rale is a Senior Content Strategist at Future Market Insights (FMI), and works closely with the healthcare, pharmaceuticals and medical devices team.