It may look futuristic but the Cortex cast has been long-awaited
Each year six million Americans will break a bone, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. That means that millions every year end up with a cumbersome cast that, over a period of about six weeks, grows itchier, dirtier, and smellier by the day. Jake Evill, a design student at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, found his own cast so archaic that he was compelled to invent a new one.
“So many things in medicine have evolved a lot and casting has evolved just a little bit,” says Tamara Rozental, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School. Now, Evill’s Cortex cast has won the New Zealand James Dyson Award and is being heralded as the first significant change to casting since the use of plaster about 150 years ago.
There are many exciting features of the Cortex, but its initial impact is purely visual. Although it’s a serious reimaging of a problematic medical procedure, the Cortex looks a lot like one of Spiderman’s webs.
In reality, the design was inspired by nature. When Evill was nursing his own broken hand — reported by Wired as the outcome of saving a friend in a fight — he began to investigate alternative casts. After no luck with existing technology, he decided to take things into his own hands using trabecular (also called spongey) bone as his structural muse.
Trabecular bone is known for being relatively soft and flexible but the Cortex is rigid, made of nylon plastic three millimeters thick. The prototype Cortex cast weighs just over a pound and cost Evill about $80 to produce over a span of 3 months. Since that was the prototype, Evill is anticipating that both the cost and production time would be reduced if the Cortex went mainstream.
A person gets fitted for the Cortex by getting both an X-ray and a 3D scan of their break site. This double scan is necessary because the Cortex is highly personalized. It’s not only shaped to fit a person exactly but its honeycomb structure is also customized to be more closely woven at the break site. Once the cast is printed, there are hinges and snaps included, so that it lies open like a book until the wearer is snapped in.
Aesthetics aside, the Cortex seems to have many functional advantages over traditional casts. These days, casts are often made of fiberglass or plaster. This makes them rather bulky and heavy. Wearers can be fitted with waterproof linings but those still need to have time to dry out if they get wet. A wet cast can cause skin underneath it to breakdown. Conventional casts are also notorious for being itchy, smelly, and too big to fit under coats or long sleeves.
The Cortex, thanks to its open weave and thin nylon construction, is void of these unpleasant features. It is also recyclable, unlike other casts.
These are exciting improvements on orthopedic casting but Dr. Rozental still encourages a dose of realism. “No matter what you use, there’s a certain amount of care and attention that has to be put into it,” she says.
Regardless of what your cast is made of and how it’s made, wearing something for 6 weeks is challenging. Fortunately, Rozental says that the Cortex still looks much easier to maintain. In fact, Cortex customization concerns her most. Currently, most casts are relatively cheap and quick to make, taking only about 15 minutes to wrap. In addition, Rozental says that about 25 to 50 percent of cast wearers need their cast refitted at least once. For traditional casts, that means cutting off the old one and taking 15 minutes to make a new one. For the Cortex, this common procedure seems like it would be substantially more complicated.
The potential for a world where casts no longer have rulers shoved down them has made the Cortex a worldwide hot topic. Unfortunately, the real thing is still only in its beginning stages. For now, Evill remains in the running for the international James Dyson award, which will be announced November 7, and word is that he’s already looking for business partners to get the Cortex going.