How Does it Feel to Walk on a Prosthetic Leg?
As we have now officially entered 2018, the phrase 'New Year, New Me' comes out. Rarely do we ever hear 'New Year, New Leg' but the reality is that statistics show that approximately 185,000 people (in the US) have a lower limb amputation each year (1).
Although many of those individuals may not be able to use a prosthetic leg, there are thousands of prosthetic legs being manufactured, customised and fitted in 2018. With that in mind, with the help of an amputee forum, I will try and explain how it feels to walk on a prosthetic, especially when receiving your first leg.
In a first prosthetic fitting you are encouraged to sit with your leg on and get used to the feeling and weight. A prosthetic is often fitted many weeks after an initial amputation and although 6 weeks (at least) doesn't feel like a long time, your body gets very used to the lack of weight/foot on the end of your leg. This means that when you first receive your leg, it can feel extremely heavy and bulky, without even walking. This does get a lot easier with time as you get stronger and more used to your leg but even now, I really enjoy the process of removing my leg at the end of the day, to take the weight off.
At first, a prosthetic can feel very daunting. There are so many different socks/liners/sleeves etc and it's all very new. Your first few steps are made between bars, which allow you to place a lot of weight through your arms but also get used to the walking motion. The feeling of walking with a prosthetic is very difficult to describe - it's like trying to describe how it feels to taste ice cream to someone without a tongue.
It's really difficult to use at first and feels like walking on a boot with an extremely thick sole, with tight laces that go all the way up to your knee. As your prosthetic foot hits the ground, you cannot feel it but at higher impact (running, stomping etc), you can feel the impact ricochet through the rest of your body. As you walk over rocks, get used to being able to anticipate how your prosthetic foot will move but at first, I found that my foot would jut out due to the lack of ankle movement.
You also don't have any toes or ankle bend, so it's very difficult to balance and it can feel as though you are walking on a very small stilt. Whereas biological feet are able to maintain balance through the toes, you have to stabilise yourself while moving your knee (or hip if above knee). It feels as though there is a lot to learn and think about when you first start walking. Where are you putting your feet? What do you do with your knees? How do you kick through the prosthetic? Is that pain normal? Am I overdoing it?
There's always that fear as a new amputee whether the pain you are experiencing is just general discomfort that you need to get used to or something more serious. I can tell you now, if your prosthetic is painful, talk to your prosthetist...even if you think it's silly. One small adjustment can make the difference between comfort and discomfort.
In a below-knee prosthetic, you weight bare through the patella tendon (just under your knee) and your stump fits into a hard socket, which can feel very tight and solid, yet still unstable in the beginning. Depending on the chosen suspension system (how your leg fits on to your stump), it can feel very hot and sweaty as often most of your amputated side is covered in layers. For me, it feels like wearing a wet suit on the top half of my leg with a large boot on the lower half.
I find that when my leg fits, it REALLY fits. It feels like a part of me and it often feels strange to take it off at night, to allow my stump to breathe. On the other hand, when something really doesn't feel right, the feeling is heightened as you continue to use your leg. If you are wearing a sock that has a slight kink in it, it can be really very uncomfortable and can then put pressures in different areas. You get very used to listening to your body and paying attention to how your stump feels.
It's very difficult to describe overall. Your prosthetic feels different in the morning than the evening as your stump changes shape throughout the day. It also feels different depending on the weather and air pressures.
I suppose in summary, it's just this heavy(ish), numb, stilt-like thing attached to the end of your leg. It's hot, it's bulky but it's part of you if you allow it to be. When you first receive a prosthetic, you wonder how you'll get used to it but you will. The key is perseverance, perseverance, perseverance........plus listening to your body. :)
(1) Ziegler‐Graham K, MacKenzie EJ, Ephraim PL, Travison TG, Brookmeyer R. Estimating the Prevalence of Limb Loss in the United States: 2005 to 2050. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation2008;89(3):422‐9.