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3-D Casts So Cool That You'll Almost Want To Break A Bone

Posted: July 12, 2013

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Other than the addition of garish colors of fiberglass, there hasn't been much innovation in cast technology in what seems like forever. But a New Zealand designer is bringing the latest in 3-D printing to orthopedics.

The waterproof material of the Cortex cast may hold up better in high-stress areas, such as  hands.

The waterproof material of the Cortex cast may hold up better in high-stress areas, such as hands.

The cast of the future?

The cast of the future?

Which would you prefer?

Which would you prefer?

The Cortex webbing could be customized to provide more support in vulnerable areas.

The Cortex webbing could be customized to provide more support in vulnerable areas.

Anybody who has ever worn a cast knows that it can really cramp your style. You itch. After a while, you stink. At times, it seems like the cast needs even more care than you do. Keep it dry or else!

Other than the addition of garish colors of fiberglass, there hasn't been much innovation in cast technology in what seems like forever. But down in New Zealand, designer Jake Evill is bringing the latest in 3-D printing to orthopedics.

The idea, which we first saw described by Wired, seems simple enough. A person shows up at the ER with a broken bone. The doctor assesses the damage with an X-ray and then makes a 3-D scan of the limb. With a 3-D printer, the doc prints out a made-to-order cast, called the Cortex, and snaps it into place.

The patient gets a superheroish exoskeleton that is sleek, breathable, durable, and perhaps best of all, shower-ready.

Shots spoke with Dr. Matthew Dobbs, board member of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, who was intrigued by the new design. "I applaud the innovation — not too much has been done to improve the cast over the last 50 years," he says.

While praising the creativity, Dobbs is skeptical about how useful the Cortex cast would be in the real world. "It has applications to minor injuries where less stability and protection is needed, but it cannot be used for the management of fractures that need to be set," he says.

When fixing a fracture, Dobbs says, he first sets the bone and then immediately applies a cast. This could get complicated with the Cortex, if you consider that the scanning and printing of the cast could take quite a while.

However, Dobbs does point out that this is a pretty stylish alternative to the Velcro brace that people often wear for the last two weeks of the healing process.

In order for this cool concept to be sold as an honest-to-goodness product in the U.S., it would have to pass muster with the Food and Drug Administration. While casts typically fall in the least regulated category of medical devices, it's not clear if the radical new design of the Cortex would draw closer scrutiny.

One thing we do know for sure, you'd have a hard time getting friends to sign your Cortex.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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