Prostheses are artificial parts that replace a missing part of the body. A prosthesis is designed to improve someone's quality of life by restoring a function or their appearance, and often both. Many basic prostheses are available through the public health system.
What are prostheses?
A prosthesis substitutes for a part of the body that may have been missing at birth, or that is lost in an accident or through amputation. Many amputees have lost a limb as part of treatment for cancer, diabetes or severe infection.
A prosthesis might also be an alternative to reconstructive surgery; for example, after removal of a nose or breast to treat cancer.
Modern prostheses for areas such as the hands, feet and the face look very natural. They are often used to improve appearance rather than function. However, researchers are now developing hand prostheses with moving fingers.
Technological developments are also improving the function of limb prostheses. Some modern prosthetic limbs have battery-powered motors that help improve the prostheses’ function.
The range of prostheses includes surgically-implanted artificial body parts, such as replacement heart valves, bones or joints, and cochlear implants. If you have one of these, your medical team will advise you on maintaining your health and lifestyle following the surgery.
You might also have heard the word orthosis used. An orthosis supports and enhances a limb or body part, while a prosthesis replaces it. For example, an artificial leg is a prosthesis, while a splint to support the leg is an orthosis.
Types of prosthesis
Limb prostheses include:
- arm prostheses fitted at, above or below the elbow
- leg prostheses fitted at, above or below the knee
Other types of prosthesis include:
- hand, foot, finger and toe prostheses
- an artificial breast worn in the bra to replace a breast removed due to cancer
- hearing aids
- artificial eyeballs
- ear, nose or eye socket replacements
- an artificial soft or hard palate (worn like a dental plate)
Who can help with prostheses?
Prosthetists are health professionals who specialise in prostheses. If you need one, they will work with your medical team to design and fit your prosthesis and help you use and care for it.
If you need an orthotic device to correct problems with posture and walking, you might also be assisted by an orthotist.
What do prostheses cost?
Artificial limbs cost thousands of dollars, but there are many sources of funding. The cost might be covered in full or in part by:
- your state’s public health system
- the National Disability Insurance Scheme
- the Department of Veterans’ Affairs or the Defence Force
- accident compensation
Public funding does not usually cover spare limbs or, for adults, limbs for specific sporting activities. You might choose to pay a contribution to get a higher quality model prosthesis than one that public funding would supply.
Funding for breast prostheses is available under the External Breast Prostheses Reimbursement Program.
Private health insurance generally doesn’t cover external prosthetic limbs or external breast prostheses. Nor does it usually cover implants that have a purely cosmetic function.
Talk to your health professional about costs and funding sources. Remember to ask about the costs of surgery, scans, tests and hospital stays.
Prostheses for children
Children need prostheses that will allow them to be active and playful. Because they are growing, children will also need to have their prostheses adjusted every few months.
Learning how to use a prosthesis is challenging and tiring for anyone, especially a child. Limbs4Kids is an organisation that provides support for children who are missing a limb and for their families.
The Australian Government offers a range of allowances that specifically relate to parenting and disability, including the Carer Allowance, Carer Payment, Mobility Allowance, Pensioner Education Supplement and Family Payments. Visit the Department of Human Services or Carer Gateway websites for more information.
Living with prostheses
A prosthesis can help you cope better with day-to-day activities, but it takes time to get used to. You’ll need regular check-ups, and maybe adjustments, to make the prosthesis as comfortable and useful as possible. And you might need a plan for rehabilitation to make sure you benefit from your prosthesis as much as possible.
You will need to take care of yourself and your prosthesis.
- remove the prosthesis for sleeping
- regularly inspect your limb's stump and keep the skin healthy
- wear appropriate protection between the stump and the prosthesis
- wear the appropriate shoes for a leg prosthesis
- clean the socket of the prosthesis
- see your prosthetist for regular check-ups
Sources of support and more information
- The Australian Orthotic Prosthetic Association
- State limb schemes (some for children only) in:
Last reviewed: July 2018