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The History of Flex-Foot

In 2014, we introduced to you the Össur Footprint, a unique set of values that represent what we stand for and how we strive for product and service excellence. This year, Össur Australia presents the Össur Difference – a celebration of Flex-Foot technology, inviting you to tell us your positive experience with our products and our people. We will also introduce to you the highly skilled and dedicated team of people that help work together to deliver a customer service experience unlike any other at every customer touch point.

Van Phillips, the man behind the technology

Flex-Foot was first introduced in 1984 by amputee, research prosthetist, and inventor Van Phillips. Van Phillips was born in 1954, grew up in a rural town near Chicago and had always been active and athletic.

Losing his left leg below the knee in a water skiing accident when he was only 21, Van Phillips became determined to create a better prosthetic leg.

“Early on, I looked at the designs in nature that would allow me to do what my body had once done. I knew I wasn’t going to create joints or bones or muscles, but there had to be a way to create that kind of elastic stretch or spring energy.”

He was first fitted with a wood and rubber leg, which provided little to no energy storage or flexibility; but he wanted to run again and wasn’t satisfied with existing solutions for amputees.

Between 1976 and 1984, Van Phillips worked with several materials and shapes to begin the journey to the birth of Flex-Foot.

The Birth of Flex-Foot

Early days saw Van Phillips experiment with carbon graphite, rubber and plastic, drawing ideas from pole vaulting and diving board springs to create a prosthesis that would maximise energy storage and return characteristics. He would test out his own models until he came to the final design, which allowed him to run again. The company ‘Flex-Foot Inc.’ was founded in 1984 as demand increased from active amputees who were also seeking prosthetic foot solutions which delivered a life without limitations.

Two critical breakthroughs made Flex-Foot products unique and revolutionised the everyday aspirations of amputees. The first, energy storage and release, is a function inherent in the patented carbon fiber design of Flex-Foot. The second, vertical shock absorption, enables a more natural gait and protects the sound limb and remaining joints of the amputated limb from excessive shock.

Today more than 90% of amputee athletes worldwide wear some model of the basic Flex-Foot introduced back then, and its widespread availability has given amputees of all activity levels the opportunity to walk, run, hike, even climb mountains, and generally improve their quality of life.

The Flex-Foot Range

Flex-Foot continues to push new boundaries. Although driven by technology, at the heart of Flex-Foot's success is its innovation and vision. Different functions are available within the Flex-Foot range to suit individual needs. All models offer significant advantages over conventional prosthetic feet. Twenty years of scientific material research lead to this unparalleled design, making Flex-Foot the ideal choice for durability, comfort and performance.

Today the Flex-Foot range features characteristics that include a full length toe lever, providing a smoother symmetrical gait; a split toe, allowing the prosthetic foot to adjust to uneven terrain and providing confidence in walking; and a customised construction to the user’s weight and impact level, optimising walking efficiency and reducing fatigue. Others features shock and rotation characteristics to absorb rotational forces, reduce trauma to the residual limb, joints and lower back.

The evolution of Vari-Flex®

In 2000, Flex-Foot was further developed with the introduction of Vari-Flex® for users who, as they become increasingly mobile and confident, enjoy a wide range of indoor and outdoor activities. Vari-Flex has since become the foot of choice for prosthetists and users globally. Over the years, new technologies further improved the Vari-Flex to meet an increasingly broader range of user needs.

The latest Vari-Flex technology is Unity®, a unique sleeveless advanced vacuum system that improves suspension and increases stability from the socket to the prosthetic leg, adding significantly to user comfort. The Vari-Flex product range has continued to expand and different designs have evolved to support a wide range of users, helping to ensure the position of Vari-Flex as the ever-popular foot of choice.



Milestones in the history of Flex-Foot

As Flex-Foot continues to evolve, as do the records and achievements of athlete users:

  • Liam Malone from New Zealand won 2 gold medals and a silver medal at the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio, and currently holds the world record for the T44 200 and 400m sprint.
  • Sarah Reinertsen became the first female to complete this grueling triathlon using a prosthetic limb, making sporting history in one of the world’s toughest endurance events – the Hawaii Ironman.
  • Richard Whitehead currently holds the world record for athletes with a double amputation, in both the full and half marathon.
  • Arnu Fourie won a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London on 5 September 2012, running the third leg as part of the South African 4x100 m relay team in a world record time of 41.78 seconds. He also set a T44 world record in his 200-meter heat, then broke it in the final.
  • Toru Suzuki from Japan is currently ranked as the top amputee High-Jumper in Asia and is the Asian and Japanese record holder.

Read more here about Team Össur, an inspirational and elite group of professionals, international athletes and sporting role models currently living beyond their disabilities.