Patient Gets Specialized Neck Brace Thanks To 3D Printing

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Joan Murdock couldn’t hold her head up. Problems with the vertebra in neck coupled with a neurodegenerative disorder had made it all but impossible to keep her head upright for long periods of time without some sort of support. “This was starting to interfere with her everyday life,” said Ben Ostler, an occupational therapist with University of Utah Health’s Sugar House Clinic. “She was to the point where she barely had the energy to do what she needed to do during the day.”

Because of the causes of the weakness in Joan’s neck doing physical therapy would not work to help her regain strength. She also wasn’t able to do exercises to increase her stamina. The only answer was to use some sort of external support to keep her neck straight and her head up. But there was a problem with the braces available on the market. “She's a petite woman and those other neck braces and head braces that we were looking at just didn't give her that support she needed or the mobility she needed,” said Ostler.

Ostler knew he could design a better brace to help Joan, and that he could possibly print it out using a 3D printer. His clinic didn’t have one, but he knew a clinic that did. “We make lots of braces,” said Jennifer Unck, an occupational therapist at University Hospital. “Usually they are made to support a wrist, or elbow, or hand, but this was the first time we had created a neck brace.”

Ostler asked Joan to go to the hospital to be scanned for the brace. The team, including occupational therapists Dallin Sudburyand Neil Scott, then took a 3D image of her head and neck to design and build the brace around. They were then able to print the customized brace using extremely lightweight plastic that would keep Joan’s head up – without weighing her down. “It’s easy for her to take on and off, and it is small enough it fits in her purse,” said Ostler. “We even made her one that's white so she could take that to church. It turned into a really neat thing.”

Neck braces may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creating 3D printed items for patients. Occupational therapists are using the technology to create parts for wheelchairs and other kinds of supports. Ostler was even able to get them to create something special for a client who is a gamer. “I designed and then they built an adaptive video game controller so my patient could play his Nintendo one-handed.”

The customization the 3D printer provides is a game changer for therapists and patients alike. It certainly has been for Joan. And she knows that if any adjustments need to be made they can be made quickly and easily using the model of her head and neck the team already has. “To be able to find these seemingly simple ways to improve her function made a really big difference,” said Ostler. “That was the main thing. We just wanted to find a way to help her, as we try with all our patients, to individualize her care.”

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