A Leg Up for Crutch Design

Other medical aids have evolved rapidly over the past century, but crutches still hobble along, awkward as ever. It's time for new ideas

Crutches have been around since the Pharaohs ruled Egypt some 5,000 years ago. You might think that 50 centuries would have given the medical device adequate time to evolve. After all, we aren't building pyramids the same way anymore.

But crutch design seems to be improving at a glacial pace. The under-arm tune-fork shape most common in the U.S. is regarded as a World War II era relic in Europe, where the forearm crutch is more common. While the forearm crutch has some advantages -- most importantly in removing the object from the underarm area, where it can cause nerve damage -- both designs could be improved upon.

As currently designed, crutches require twice as much energy to maneuver as normal walking. A team of mechanical engineers at Stanford who have studied the problem say that users of under-arm crutches are essentially doing a push-up with every step. Moreover, under-arm crutches can actually cause injury through repetitive stress on the hands, wrists, and arms. These crutches can also damage the Brachial Plexus, the network of nerves that control the muscles of the shoulder and arm.


  The same Stanford project identified nine needs that crutches should meet: They need to be supportive of the user's weight, facilitative of shock absorption and energy return, durable, lightweight, easily maneuverable, able to remain attached to the user while he or she is reaching for a door or shaking hands, comfortable, quiet, and supportive of a user's self-esteem.

One obvious reason that crutches have been slow to evolve is that, despite the growing popularity of leg-breaking sports like snow-boarding, they aren't typical consumer goods. It's also true that only the unfortunate users of crutches are really aware of how awful they are.

Personal experience is responsible for two of the most notable redesign efforts: Thomas Fetterman, who had polio as a child, has brought several crutch innovations to market, including a shock-absorbing tip and a lightweight titanium crutch. Guy Robinson, a director of Sprout Design who ended up on crutches following a car accident, later developed the award-winning Pro-crutch concept: a carbon-fiber design with an emphasis on ergonomics.


 To spur creative thinking about crutch design, BusinessWeek Online asked three design firms to tackle the problem. Click here to see what they came up with.

Got your own ideas? Submit a design, along with your name and an explanatory caption, to designconcept@businessweek.com. We'll add the best submissions to our slide show.

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