According to a report put together by Grand View Research, the medical plastics market is expected to climb above $33 billion by 2025, up from $17.2 billion in 2018. That means in just seven years, the medical plastics market is expected to double in value. There are several reasons for this, including an aging population, but the effectiveness of plastic biomaterials is one of the most important. Every year, new applications for medical plastics are found, and high-performance polymers like PEEK have shown promise in many medical fields.
Why Plastic Medical Devices Are Becoming Front-line Options
Plastic medical devices are used both in and out of the body, and in a diverse range of applications. Plastics are found in laboratory equipment and in surgical instrumentation. Plastic is also taking over the single-use instrument market, as it is much more practical compared to other materials in a single-use application. Plastic devices are also growing in popularity, as infection control is a major concern among medical facilities.
As impressive as this development is, high-performance polymers like PEEK are pushing medical technology forward. Since the introduction of the first PEEK spinal implant nearly 20 years ago, PEEK has found its way into many more medical devices while gaining more ground in spinal implant procedures.
Why is PEEK drawing so much attention among medical professionals?
- A similar modulus to bone – Ideally, biomaterials would mimic the tissues they’re replacing. This would guarantee optimal comfort and ensure the device behaves in a way that facilitates healing. Until the introduction of PEEK, however, it was impossible to find a biomaterial that could provide the same material advantages of cortical bone.
PEEK, in both its unfilled state and carbon-reinforced state, possesses a modulus that is far more similar to bone than titanium. In fact, titanium’s modulus is about ten times greater than that of bone’s, which is a problem in applications where stress shielding could result.
Since PEEK flexes and bears weight like bone, it will not cause stress shielding, ensuring nearby bone retains its mineral density and integrity. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Spine Surgery, PEEK’s ability to mimic the modulus of bone it interfaces is valuable in that it may reduce postoperative complications.
PEEK’s modulus advantage isn’t relevant in all of its medical applications, but it is the main driver of PEEK’s success in spinal fusion, trauma fixation and orthopedic procedures.
- Radiolucency – PEEK’s radiolucency is a second compelling reason for its adoption among medical professionals. PEEK, in both CFR and unfilled grades, is transparent on X-ray, MRI and CT scans. It is extremely easy for surgical teams to image the implant site and monitor how the implant is positioned and interfacing with neighboring bone. Clear imaging is needed to spot potential complications, and PEEK doesn’t get in the way of this. It’s another point in PEEK’s favor over titanium, which does produce considerable opacity on most medical imaging.
If, however, radiolucency is not desired, PEEK can be mixed with additives that improve its image contrast. Barium sulfate is the most common additive used for this purpose, and it can be added to PEEK without compromising its material properties.
- Processability – As a high-performance polymer, PEEK can be molded and shaped to almost any degree. This allows it to fit into a variety of applications that other biomaterials, because of their inferior processability, can’t match.
Consider all the ways PEEK can be processed into a medical component. It can be injection molded, machined, extruded or run through exotic processes like film calendaring, which is used for extremely tiny medical components that require special medical film. It’s impossible to process other biomaterials in this fashion, which gives PEEK an advantage that designers and converters can both leverage.
- Future potential – PEEK is a worthy frontline biomaterial for some of the most delicate procedures in medicine, like spinal fusion. However, no other biomaterial is being developed at the rate PEEK is. PEEK’s few limitations are being resolved quickly, and they’re being resolved by next generation implants that are rapidly being introduced to the market.
For example, PEEK implants augmented with hydroxyapatite achieve greater bone-in growth and integrate better with native bone. Implants designed with microporous structures, zeolite and other integration-enabling mechanisms are additional solutions available.
What this illustrates is that PEEK can be developed and improved upon, whereas other biomaterials offer a lower potential ceiling. Medical professionals with one eye on the present and one on the future will find everything they want in PEEK.
Plastic medical devices offer a number of benefits that other biomaterials like stainless steel and titanium can’t match. Superior flexibility, weight-bearing, radiolucency and processability are all among PEEK’s defining characteristics, which means it can be integrated into a variety of medical devices. The future of medicine, then, is made with plastics.