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Beautiful Decay

How do prosthetic joints wear out? MGH researchers count the ways—in an attempt to improve materials.

By Brandon Keim // The MGH Research Issue 2011

More than a million people use artificial hip and knee joints designed at the Harris Orthopaedic Biomechanics and Biomaterials Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. At the lab, testing machines run day and night, compressing years of steps into a few months—but however sophisticated those simulations may be, they can’t reproduce the stress endured by an artificial joint in the real world, inside a real body. For that, Harris Lab researchers study artificial joints retrieved from patients; the wear and tear seen in these earlier models, sometimes installed decades ago, inform the new designs.

“Patients differ in their activity levels, the loads applied to their joints, and the composition of the fluids that are absorbed into the joints’ bearing surfaces,” says Shannon Rowell, who manages retrieval research at the lab. “To determine how the joints perform in the long term, we need to look at them after they’ve been implanted in patients. Such studies provide all the unique variables we may not be able to predict or replicate in the lab.”

Here are some extreme examples of prosthetic joints’ beautiful decay.

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