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Helping Amputees Kick Phantom Pain

Did you know roughly 80 percent of the world’s 10 million amputees experience phantom pain in their missing limbs? Intel International Science and Engineering Fair1 (Intel ISEF) finalist Katherine Bomkamp developed a prosthetic socket that incorporates thermal biofeedback to alleviate their suffering.

As the teenage daughter of a U.S. Air Force veteran based in the D.C. area, Katherine Bomkamp often visited Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital for her or family members’ medical appointments. There, in waiting rooms and the cafeteria, she encountered young war vets who had lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. As she chatted with them and their families, she heard a common complaint: phantom pain. Eighty percent of amputees experience this throbbing or burning sensation, which seems to emanate from their missing limbs and can range from annoying to excruciating.

Motivated to alleviate suffering for these young men and women, Bomkamp began conducting research and discovered that antipsychotics and barbituates—expensive and highly addictive medicines—are often prescribed for phantom pain. Bomkamp was convinced she could find a more holistic approach. When she learned that heat could be used to distract the brain from pain, she came up with a novel solution: heat therapy delivered via prosthetic. In short, she developed a socket for prosthetics which incorporates thermal-bio feedback to eliminate phantom pain. Bomkamp’s “Pain Free Socket” prototype won awards at Intel ISEF in both 2009 and 2010. 

Since then, Bomkamp has continued to make her protoype more sophisticated, incorporating automatic temperature regulation, embedded thermo-resistive wiring, and a solar-powered lithium-ion battery, patenting the technology. As a result, Bomkamp has garnered additional honors, including induction into the National Gallery for America’s Young Inventors. She has also formed her own company, Katherine Bomkamp International (KBI), and is fundraising to bring her Pain Free Socket* to testing and, eventually, to market, to benefit some of the 10 million amputees worldwide.

Intel ISEF winners

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

A program of Society for Science & the Public, Intel ISEF is the world’s largest pre-college science competition with over USD 4 million in awards.

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Healthcare

Working with governments, organizations, the industry, and tech innovators worldwide to streamline and secure the life sciences workflow.

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Intel Foundation

Helping to develop a diverse future workforce and advance interest in science, technology, engineering, and math education in underserved youth and girls.

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1. A program of the Society for Science & the Public.