These days, 3-D printing can be used to make just about anything – from guns to eyeglasses.
In place of the ink used by their 2-D counterparts, 3-D printers take materials ranging from plastics and ceramics to metals and, layer by layer, create three-dimensional objects based on digital files. Also called additive manufacturing, the process supports a high degree of customization, making it particularly attractive for creating individualized solutions to problems – including those in health care.
One way the technology is being used in patient care is to prepare for complex surgeries – like removing a large brain tumor, where the margin for making accurate incisions is minimal. In such a case, a surgeon at The Ottawa Hospital in Ontario – which earlier this year launched the first hospital-based 3-D printing program in Canada – can request a 3-D model that would show the brain and the tumor, based on scans, to prepare for the surgery.
Such models are also used to discuss the procedure with patients in complex cases. “The patient is able to see exactly what the surgeon is going to do – how they’re going to make the incision, or the surgical cuts [and] what is going to come out,” says Dr. Adnan Sheikh, a radiologist and medical director of 3-D printing at The Ottawa Hospital. So that really helps the patient understand better what is going to happen with their care.
3-D Printing in Orthopedics
The same focus is also now being used to customize joint replacement surgeries – such as hip and knee procedures – for patients with significant anatomical abnormalities or deformities, explains Dr. Jason Koh, a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. An orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine, Koh is chairman of the orthopedic surgery at NorthShore University Health System in Evanston, Illinois.
Some patients have, for example, sustained a fracture; or it may be, he says, that “the normal geometry of the knee is distorted, or they have significant erosion of their bone so that the alignment of the knee is off.” While it’s common for cartilage in joints to be worn away with wear and tear – such as in the case of osteoarthritis – bone abnormalities or deformities can affect how well an implant may fit.
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