Have you ever heard of "phantom pain"? It's a common complaint for amputees who experience pain coming from a missing body part. For example, an amputee could be experiencing foot pain, despite not having a foot. According to the Mayo Clinic, doctors used to think that this was a psychological issue, but recent research shows that these feelings are very real and stem from the spinal cord and brain.
Until now, a good prosthetic could only restore some functionality of a missing limb, but it couldn't replace the sensations. But a new high-tech prosthetic could soon be changing all of that. Professor Hubert Egger of the University of Linz in Austria just fitted an amputee named Wolfgang Ranger with the first sensory-enhanced prosthetic.
"I no longer slip on ice and I can tell whether I walk on gravel, concrete, grass or sand. I can even feel small stones," said Ranger.
How is this possible? First, Ranger had to undergo surgery to rewire some of the nerve endings in his stump, bringing them closer to the surface of his skin. Next, six different sensors were placed at the bottom of the artificial foot to measure things like heel pressure along with toe and foot movement.
The signals from the artificial foot are then routed to a micro-controller, then on to stimulators that are placed at the base of the stump of the missing leg. The stimulators vibrate, then send signals to the brain that there is indeed a foot there.
With the new limb, not only can Ranger tell what type of surface he is walking on, he's also able to run, cycle and go climbing. He also says that his phantom pain is gone.
"It feels like I have a foot again. It's like a second lease of life."