Farmers and ranchers are at higher risk of requiring amputation than workers in other industries, yet a new study from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that current prostheses are not necessarily suitable for farm work.

When compared with other industries, farmers and ranchers are 2.5 times more likely to need amputation as a result of being hurt on the job. Most of these amputations involve fingers and toes, but there are still plenty of farmers who lose larger body parts and have to manage with insufficient prostheses.

“There are lot of issues and challenges to farming with a prosthesis,” said Stefania Fatone, research associate professor in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern and corresponding author of the study. “They often need to climb ladders and silos, lift bags of feed and seed, and walk on uneven terrain, in all kinds of weather conditions. Also, a dairy farmer may have very different needs than a corn farmer or cattle rancher.”

The major issue reported by interviewed farmers and prosthetists was durability. Farmers reported breaking bolts when lifting and jumping, as well as other farm tasks. Heavy lifting, rough terrain and aspects of farmers’ lifestyles also cause prostheses to deteriorate faster and fail more frequently than those belonging to individuals in other occupations. And, to make matters worse, prosthesis failure and durability issues often lead to secondary injuries.

Prostheses are also quite expensive, and farmers in rural areas may have to travel great distances to a prosthetist’s clinic, adding to the cost. In addition, farmers’ medical insurance is often inadequate in covering the devices, so many farmers attempt to repair their own prosthesis — which can be a major safety concern — while others simply go without replacements.

Part of the problem here is that prosthetic devices are not made for day-to-day farm life, instead being best suited for someone with an office job or other not-physically demanding position. Another issue is that prosthetists are not typically trained about specific needs of farmers and ranchers, and thus sometimes prescribe inappropriate options or do not inform farmer patients about proper care and maintenance. The Northwestern study is part of a larger project that aims to tackle both of these issues. The project will design educational materials outlining farmers’ prosthesis needs, as well as work with prosthesis manufacturers to develop more robust devices.

Researchers are now recruiting farmers with prostheses from across the United States to take part in a larger study.

Main photo credit: Paul Bettner/Flickr