Improved surgical procedures in orthopaedics have seen a growth in limb lengthening surgery– to the extent that hundreds of operations are now being performed every year.
Most people undergo limb lengthening surgery to gain height solely for cosmetic reasons – to improve their appearance. But the decision to undergo limb lengthening surgery should not be taken lightly. Not only is it expensive (you can expect to pay around £50,000 for the surgery in the UK and as much as $280,000 in the US), but it can also prove extremely painful.
The limb lengthening technique
The technique involves drilling a hole into the patient’s leg bones and breaking them in two. The surgeon then fits a metal rod inside the leg, using screws to hold it. Every day the rod is lengthened by 1mm until the desired height is gained, and the bones are then allowed to heal back together.
As you would expect, the patient needs several months of daily rehabilitation afterwards to learn to walk again.
Potential problems of limb lengthening surgery
Like most surgical procedures, limb lengthening surgery can have complications. These include a failure of the bones to fuse back together, nerve injuries and even blood clots.
Professor Hamish Simpson, of the British Orthopaedic Association said: “The techniques and technology have improved substantially over the past couple of decades, making it a safer procedure. It was first performed 70 years ago by Soviet surgeon Gavril Ilizarov to help soldiers injured during WW2.
“However, not only must the patient’s bones regrow, more muscle, nerve, blood vessels and skin have to be grown, and the procedure remains an extremely complex process, with a high complication rate.”
Despite the pain and potential complications, limb lengthening surgery is growing in popularity around the globe. Today it is performed in several countries. In addition to the US and UK, you’ll also find patients undergoing the operation in Germany, South Korea, Spain, India, Turkey and Italy.
Germany, South Korea and the US are where the procedure is performed most often – up to 200 times a year in each country. Elsewhere, up to 40 operations, a year take place.
It is primarily men who undergo the procedure, desperate to extend their height. In practice, achieving growth in the height of three to four inches isn’t unusual, with some patients able to increase their height by five inches.
Leg lengthening ‘boosts self-esteem and confidence’
Patients say the risks of the procedure – and the costs – are worth it for their self-esteem and the sake of their mental health. Many feel that women aren’t interested in smaller men, while others say the increase in height gives them more dominance in the board room.
There are few realistic alternatives. Stacked heels on shoes are obvious, while ‘leg lengthening’ exercises produce poor results if any.
Sam Becker, 30, of New York grew three inches in height (from 5ft 4ins to 5ft 7ins) following the procedure seven years ago. He underwent physical therapy four times a week for three hours.
“It is kind of crazy… breaking both of your legs and learning to walk again. It’s seen as a cosmetic surgery, but I did it a lot more personally for my mental health,” he said.
Describing the bone growth, another former patient, aged 46, said: “It’s as if all the nerves in your legs are being stretched. There are times when you can’t escape anywhere in your head from the pain. It is excruciating.”
The good news for patients is that they should be able to return to physical activity such as playing sports once they have recovered from leg lengthening surgery.
Clinics performing limb lengthening surgery
In Germany, there is the Betz Institute in Wadern, near the border with Luxembourg and France, and the Ludwig Maximilian University Hospital and the ZEM clinic, both Munich.
In the US, private clinics specialising in the technique include The Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics (RIAO) in Baltimore, the Limb Lengthening and Regeneration Clinic in Minnesota and Silicon Valley Orthopaedics in California.
Dr Amar Sarin, in Delhi, has performed limb lengthening surgery 400 times over two decades. He usually charges patients around US$20,000 for the procedure.
Dhananjay Gupta, a member of the Delhi Orthopaedic Association, believes the operation should only be carried out when clinically necessary, for example, for patients with uneven limbs.
“It is harder to justify if done for cosmetic reasons, especially if complications crop up, he said. “In such instances, the likelihood of a lawsuit is also higher.”
Presumably, Dr Gupta would have refused to perform the operation on Alfonso Flores from Dallas. He was keen to increase his height from 5 ft 11” to 6 ft 1”.