They help hold bones together after a bad break, but are metal pins and screws the best option?
One research team is using their own experience to find a more natural way of healing.
Doctor Khalid Lafdi measures his success in strides. Two years ago the avid runner broke his ankle.
"I heard 'pock,'" he recalls. "God, that's it. Emotionally, I couldn't accept it, because for me it was the end of the world."
The engineering professor went through two surgeries and had to have a metal plate put in.
"You feel it pinching, especially in the morning," he explains.
His pain pushed him to search for a new way to help bones heal -- minus the metal.
Dr. Lafdi says the metal is too strong and ultimately weakens the bone.
"This always stays a foreign element in your body," he says.
Dr. Lafdi wants to replace metal with carbon-based repair parts. He's making plates that disappear over time and scaffolding for new bone cells to grow on.
Since carbon is found naturally in the body, it means better healing, less pain, and fewer surgeries.
"Carbon is an excellent material. Our civilization is moving into a carbon technology civilization," Dr. Lafdi explains.
Researcher Mary Kundrat's injury-filled past also fuels her interest. A slide in a softball game led to eight knee surgeries.
"I have a stainless steel screw in my left foot. I have three titanium pins in my right knee. I have a screw through my right femur, and I have a screw through my right tibia," Mary explains.
She's using a computer program to find the best places for bone cell growth.
"I've been very interested is seeing what we can do to really help patients' quality of life be better, because from a personal standpoint it's not fun having foreign materials in your body," Mary admits.
The team uses their own aches and pains to find new ways to heal bones, paving a new path for healing.
The carbon material Dr. Lafdi is using to repair bones is already used as a heat-resistant component of space shuttles.
Testing could begin soon in Europe.
MEDICAL BREAKTHROUGHS RESEARCH SUMMARY
TOPIC: HEALING BROKEN BONES: NO METAL NEEDED
REPORT: MB #2986
A human adult body contains 206 bones and an infant contains about 300.
Bones are rigid organs that come in a variety of shapes and sizes, giving structure to the body. They work to move, support and protect our organs, make red and white blood cells, and store minerals. Bones are lightweight but hard and rigid.
Bone fractures occur as a result of stress or from a forceful impact. Breaks can also happen as a result of medical conditions that weaken bones, such as osteoporosis, certain cancers and osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic bone disorder.
A break in a bone can range from a hairline fracture, when there is a thin break in the bone, to a bone that has snapped into two pieces, much like a broken tree branch. There are several types of fractures, including the following:
A complete fracture: When the bone is broken in half.
A greenstick fracture: A partial fracture when one side of the bone is broken and the other side bends.
A single fracture: When the bone is broken in one place.
A comminuted fracture: When the bone is broken into more than two pieces or is crushed.
A bowing fracture: When the bone bends but doesn't break. This only happens in children.
An open fracture: When the bone is protruding through the skin.
REPAIRING BROKEN BONES:
Before beginning treatment, an X-ray is taken to reveal what type of and where a fracture has occurred. Sometimes a splint is all that is needed to prevent the bone from moving and allow it to heal.
Splints usually support the broken bone on one side. Most broken bones require a cast, which encircles the bone entirely and is removed when the bone is healed. For displaced fractures, where the two pieces of a break do not line up, the bone is required to be set before a cast is put on. For breaks in larger bones or when a bone breaks in more than two pieces, surgical repair may be required.
Bone fracture repair is surgery that uses plates, nails, screws or pins to heal broken bones. Under general or local anesthesia, a surgeon makes a cut over the fractured bone which is placed into its proper position. Screws, pins or plates are attached to or put into the bone temporarily or permanently. Nails are used to stabilize longer bones.
While the switch from stainless steel to titanium repair parts has reduced corrosion, which can be toxic to the body, the metal parts can cause other issues. They can cause pain, pinching, as well as the skin to feel itchy. When it is cold outside, plates can feel cold, and strong plates can cause weak bone growth, increasing the chance of re-injury.
For these reasons, researchers at the University of Dayton, Ohio are developing a way to help broken bones heal faster and stronger, using carbon-based repair parts.
They are creating bone fixation plates that disappear over time and scaffolding for new bone cells to grow on. For patients, the new technology could mean fewer surgeries, less pain and a better outcome.
The carbon foam material they are testing is created by heating and pressurizing it until it puffs into a sponge-like material. It's then soaked in polymers which feed the bone cells.
The cells continue to grow on a carbon scaffolding, which remains after the polymer degrades. Experts estimate it will be 10 years before it is FDA-approved for use in patients.