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June 2000

Splints For Broken Bones

Suffer a bone-related injury and one of these high-tech splints will quickly become your best friend.

Snow, deep and soft, hid the rock. When the young woman slipped while descending the steep slope, she extended her left arm to break the fall. Her arm found the rock, broke near the wrist, and bent in a way that those bones aren’t supposed to bend. It wasn’t pretty. Made me hurt just to look at it.

We could have hiked her out that way, with pain tearing at the arm like a hungry coyote, but I had a little helper–SAM, by name–in my relatively small first-aid kit. Rolled up into less space than a can of beer takes up and weighing much less, the SAM Splint provided the urgent support she needed. Unrolled, folded in half, bent to create rigidity, and held snugly in place with an elastic wrap, SAM prevented further injury and eased her pain while we finished the walk to the road and drove to the hospital. That young woman got a lot of relief from just a little bit of foam and metal.

The splint known as SAM–a name that wasn’t intended as an acronym, though it has come to be known as standing for “structural aluminum malleable”–is the brainchild of Dr. Sam Scheinberg, a man who learned a big lesson in discomfort when he served as a field medic in Vietnam. Dr. Scheinberg saw injured legs and arms strapped to gun butts, tree limbs, or nothing at all. It wasn’t until about 5 years after Dr. Scheinburg returned home, late one night after surgery, his wife, Cherrie, remembers, that “he was folding a gum wrapper and realized it was not the weight but the curve that could give strength to a splint.” Thus was born the most innovative emergency splint ever to cradle a broken bone.

Dr. Scheinberg’s SAM is a thin, durable, very flexible piece of aluminum surrounded by closed-cell, hypoallergenic foam. Vibrant blue on one side and bright orange on the other, the foam is also available entirely in dull gray for those who desire less colorful emergency care. X-rays pass through, and it’s waterproof, completely washable, and can be used many times. This “pocket cast” also cuts easily with scissors to build splints for smaller bones. If you’d rather not cut, SAM comes in four lengths: 36 inches, 18 inches, 9 inches, and 41/4 inches. SAM can be curved and bent by the strength of a 5-year-old, and it’s malleable even when it’s cold. With creative shaping–sort of like first-aid origami–SAM can be used on just about every bone in the body except the femur (big thigh bone).

Putting SAM To Work

  • When it’s time to use SAM, do the folding before applying the splint to the injured person. Although minor adjustments can be made to the splint after placement along an extremity, you don’t want to increase pain by moving the injured limb excessively.
  • A longitudinal bend gives the splint an amazing amount of rigidity; adding a reverse bend along the outer edges (basically creating a lip along each side) increases the overall strength fourfold.
  • After using SAM dozens of times, I’ve found that adding padding–extra socks, T-shirts, etc.–against the limb before putting the splint in place increases comfort for the long haul, which is important since most wilderness evacuations take awhile.
  • SAM can be held in place with first-aid tape, roller gauze, elastic wrap, vet wrap, or anything that enables you to tie it down.
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