Limb-lengthening operations are a growing trend in the field of cosmetic surgery. The procedure is generally viewed as a godsend for people whose short stature affects their lives and psychological well-being, as the operations can add a good two to three inches to their height, but they do come at a cost. Not only are they ridiculously expensive, but they also involve having your legs broken!
The painful surgery was once reserved for people with dwarfism or children with uneven limb length. But now it seems that men and women with below-average height are willing to brave the torment for purely cosmetic reasons. The arduous and prolonged procedure begins with a doctor breaking the patient’s shin bones and inserting a telescopic rod into them. Over time, as the bones heal, the rod pulls the bones apart gradually – approximately one millimeter per day. As the bone is stretched, new bone, nerves, arteries, and skin grow to fill in the gap. The process is complete in about three months time, adding two to three inches to overall height. After this, the patient would need several months of physiotherapy to recover completely.
Dr. Dror Paley, an orthopedic surgeon from Florida, had performed about 650 leg-lengthening surgeries by 2012. He said that most of his patients had dwarfism or severe deformities, while a few had height dysphoria and did not find psychotherapy helpful. “They’re unhappy with their height,” he explained. “It’s one of those few psychologic-psychiatric disorders that you can actually cure with the knife.”
Case-in-point is New Jersey resident Akash Shukla, who ‘grew’ from 4-foot-11 to 5-foot-2 after undergoing the surgery. He described being under 5 foot tall as “a void inside me – an emptiness in my heart.” He also defended his decision to get surgery: “There are people that have said, ‘just accept what God gave you.’ But, in some way, shape or form everybody is trying to alter what God gave them. If God gave kids crooked teeth, they get braces.”
Given that the surgery can cost $85,000 or more in the U.S., a few people are opting to travel to India, where it is apparently more affordable. Dr. Amar Sarin, an orthopaedic surgeon in New Delhi, specializes in leg-lengthening surgery. “Initially, most of my patients were from the US, Europe and China,” he said. “But it has changed over the past three years. Indians now account for two in three surgeries.”
The Russian-trained surgeon said that he uses the Ilizarov technique – the bone is cut or broken and lengthened gradually with the help of metal wires and rings. He has performed over 3,000 procedures since 1996, 150 of which were done for cosmetic reasons.
Photo: Dr. Mahesh Kumar
As successful as the treatment has been, several orthopaedists do not recommend that it be performed unless absolutely necessary. “I do not advocate it for cosmetic reasons because there can be complications such as infection and neurovascular complications because of the insertion, osteoporosis at the site of the fracture,” said Dr. Manish Dhawan, also a New Delhi orthopaedic surgeon.
According to a 2006 study in the journal International Orthopaedics, “complications of this treatment are frequent”. They include nerve damage, uneven lengthening, hip problems and paralysis. For these reasons, limb-lengthening usually isn’t performed on people over 5-foot-9.
Photo: Hindustan Times
The excruciating pain is also a deterrent, and doctors don’t prescribe anti-inflammatory painkillers because they might inhibit bone growth. Some people even regret their decision of opting for the surgery, because of the pain. Like ‘Jack’, a 5-foot-6 man who traveled to China for the operation that made him 5-foot-9. “It is the worst decision I made in my life,” he stated, adding that it was “not nearly worth the pain.”
But the procedure has been very popular in China for quite some time now. Kong Jim-wen spent over $8,000 to lengthen her legs way back in 2003, in spite of the fact that she was a healthy woman with no disorders or ailments. “It hurts, but it will be worth it to be taller,” she said, as she lay in bed in considerable pain. “I’ll have more opportunities in life and a better chance of finding a good job and husband.”
Her parents, who financed the operation, agreed: “It’s an investment in our daughter’s future. Because she was short, she used to lack confidence, but this should change that.”
26-year-old Bob Lendel who underwent the surgery in India in September last year to add two inches to his 5-foot-9 frame was also quite happy with the results. “I’m not sure my friends will notice I’m taller, but it makes me feel good about myself,” he said. When asked if it was worth the pain he said: “Yes. But I’m happy I’m done with it.”