Many medical professionals predict that 3D printing technology will drastically change orthopedic surgery for the better.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, works by successively laying down fine layers of a chosen material until it creates the desired three-dimensional shape.

This technology isn’t new, but has advanced to the point where accessibility is greater than ever before. The medical world is continually finding new applications for this exciting technology.

Applications in Orthopedics

One important benefit of 3D printing in the orthopedic field is for testing and planning purposes. The ability to test treatments or implants on exactly accurate models is important. 3D printing can potentially speed up the processes involved in the development of new devices while improving coordination between engineers and medical professionals.

Orthopedic surgeons can use 3D printed models to plan their surgery better, and even can use it during surgery for guidance. Some surgeons will even perform the surgery beforehand on the 3D printed model, so they are more ready for the actual procedure.

3D printing definitely has application for implants and devices themselves. Imagine a surgeon needing a specific instrument or a modified replacement joint and being able to create it on the spot.

Orthopedics is one of the more promising medical fields for 3D printing, compared to fields dealing with soft tissue and organs. Structural replacement implants in the knees or hip that are personalized to each patient through 3D printing would be an incredible medical advancement. Considering there are hundreds of thousands of knee replacement procedures each year, this would truly be revolutionary.

The cobalt chrome and titanium materials commonly used for knee replacement have certain design limitations that 3D printing with polymer materials needs to overcome. FDA approval is still probably years away before this becomes a reality, however.

In Use

Using computed tomography (CT) and MRI, 3D images of bones can be formulated and then re-constructed by a 3D printer. The printed model can then be used for teaching, better understanding the individual’s issues, and surgical guidance.

In cases of degeneration, the printed bones can be compared to other anatomical models and the patient’s other bones, so manufacturing of implanted parts can be better guided.

Ankle Reconstructions

Dr. Wolf of West Idaho Orthopedics and Sports Medicine says printing 3D replicas of deformed feet and ankles can greatly assist in surgery.

“After examining the patient and looking at their X-rays, I have a general idea what surgery the patient needs,” he says. “The 3D replica augments this plan and the discussion with the patient in several ways.”

First, the patient’s lower extremity deformity is understood in a way not possible with 2D images alone. Orthopedic surgeons can explain what will happen in the surgery in a much clearer way to the patient. Second, the surgeon can demonstrate how the changes will influence the foot’s structure.

“It allows me to preoperatively template the bony corrections and see how they will affect the overall shape and position of the foot,” Dr. Wolf says.

Furthermore, Dr. Wolf says, standard surgical procedures can be modified as needed, with the guidance of the 3D replica.

“Knowing exactly what the skeleton looks like beneath the skin is a huge advantage when you may be placing multiple incisions in close proximity. The incisions can be smaller and more strategically placed with this additional information,” he says.