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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Farther and Faster - Composites in Sports Medicine

My apologies about the sort of macabre nature of some of the images in this post, but this is what composites in sports medicine is all about – giving the people who have suffered limb injuries that have kept them from doing what they love or even had their legs amputated or blown off in battle, the chance to get back out on the track or back in the gym, or on the field.

As you can see from some of these pictures, a lot of the things you see are intended to be implanted, because sports medicine is mostly about how we repair injuries to the Musculo-skeletal system in athletes. And, what you see above is largely limbs and joints. That’s because limbs and joints – arms, legs, knees, hips, shoulders – these are all the things that get injured in athletics. And when they are injured, the athlete can’t do what they used to do or can’t compete in the events that they would normally compete in.

Before the advent of composites, and prior to the use of carbon fiber with some of the higher end thermoplastics like PEEK, the things that you see here

were largely made using stainless steel or titanium. And the unfortunate thing about these metals is that they aren’t as bio-compatible as most plastics. What this led to was the need to replace titanium knee and hip joints after about 10 years or so. The stiffness mismatch and also the not-so-great bio-compatibility of most metals led sometimes to tissue rejection or scarring of the bone so that the replacement joint never fully bonded with the bone. This was a fairly common occurrence before the advent of composites, and especially carbon fiber/ PEEK composites.

Now that the sports medicine business has adopted carbon fiber-based composites, not only can they make something that is more friendly to the body than metals, it is now possible to modify the stiffness of the implant to match the stiffness of the bone that it is replacing. And, making the surface of the composite implant slightly porous gives the body the chance to knit the new “replacement bone” into its own bone structure.

One more clear advantage of composites over metals is that not only can you see the new replacement on an x-ray, doctors can also use MRI machines to visualize the replacement and determine how well the replacement is knitted to the bone.

Each one of the implants I have shown in this post can be custom made to match exactly what needs to be reinforced and where it needs to be reinforced. This alone has revolutionized the sports orthopedics industry and has led to far better outcomes for patients who want to stay active and healthy but have injured a bone or a joint – as in athletes who push themselves to the point of failure just go get better at what they do.

That, in a nutshell, is what separates athletes from the rest of humanity.And now that we have carbon fiber composites to reinforce what the athlete breaks or just wears out, people can keep doing what they love well into retirement age.


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