By now, you’ve probably heard about how 3D printing has revolutionized manufacturing. But did you know it also can be used to produce replicas of human bones? In fact, 3D-printed bone, which is fabricated from a porous metal structure in the shape of the patient’s natural bone, can be used in certain foot and ankle surgeries to offer hope to patients with a prior injury, trauma or failed surgery.

“The bones and architecture within the foot are very intricate and important, as they are all weight-bearing structures,” said Blount Memorial board-certified podiatric foot and ankle surgeon Dr. Ben Blodgett, whose residency at the University of Louisville, a Level 1 trauma center, included training in surgically treating ankle and heel bone fractures. “Any malalignment can result in deformity or failure of surgical fixation, or binding. A 3D-printed bone that maintains the patient’s natural alignment and bone-to-bone articulation is better for weight bearing compared to historical bone block wedges, which may or may not incorporate with the patient’s remaining healthy bone,” he said.

Customizing a bone using 3D-printing technology allows Blodgett to treat patients who are suffering with pain, loss of function and other issues related to a prior ankle or foot injury or failed surgery. Potential candidates for the 3D-printed bone technique include those with avascular necrosis, also known as loss of blood supply and death of a particular bone; failed big toe joint fusion with extreme loss of length; and ankle replacement surgery complications resulting in a non-salvageable ankle bone.

“This approach should be utilized more for revision and a last-attempt type surgery,” said Blodgett, who is the only physician in Blount County performing the technique. “I recently had a patient who had avascular necrosis of her navicular bone, located at the top inner side of the foot, with complete obliteration of the bone. This very important bone, which helps maintain the foot arch and alignment, couldn’t be pieced back together. I did not feel that a bone wedge would be adequate enough, meaning the standard procedure would fail,” he explained. So, Blodgett created a 3D-printed navicular bone, a process that began by taking CT scans of both of the patient’s feet. Having a CT scan of the healthy foot allowed Blodgett to digitally move an image of the patient’s intact navicular bone onto the image of the injured bone.

“Using this mirror image serves to keep the patient’s own anatomic structures and alignment intact,” Blodgett said, adding that preoperative planning for the 3D-printed bone technique is primarily done on a computer application using the CT scan. “The computer application allows plates, screws and other fixation devices to be added to the bone and tailored to the patient’s foot prior to being officially printed,” he explained.

The 3D-printed bone technique is only one of the advanced foot and ankle procedures available at Blount Memorial. For more information or to schedule an initial consultation, call Dr. Blodgett at 865-980-5364.

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