Limb-lengthening: The 'radical' new plastic surgery craze

The Week

Adding a few inches to your height conjures up images of the medieval rack — and could be the next big thing in cosmetic surgery

"Just when you think plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures couldn't get any weirder," says Wendy Michaels at LimeLife, "along comes something like this": Limb-lengthening operations to add a few inches to your height. Though the painful surgery was once reserved for people with dwarfism and children with one leg longer than the other, an increasing number of (mostly) men of just-below-average height are seeking it out for purely cosmetic reasons, according to ABC News. Here, a brief guide to the "radical and costly procedure"

How does limb-lengthening work?
Though medieval torture devices aren't involved, the procedure is arduous and prolonged. A doctor breaks the patient's shin bone and inserts a telescoping rod. Over time, the rod pulls the bone apart very gradually, roughly 1 millimeter a day. As the leg bone is stretched apart, new bone, nerves, arteries, and skin grow to fill in the gap. The whole process takes about three months, followed by several more months of demanding physical therapy. Only a few American doctors perform this procedure, which costs about $85,000 in the U.S., and significantly less abroad.

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How much taller can it make you?
Generally, the surgery can add two or three inches to a patient's height, although a New York man using the pseudonym "Apotheosis" added six inches to his original 5-foot-6 frame. More typical is New Jersey resident Akash Shukla, 25, who has "grown" to about 5-foot-2 from 4-foot-11. Limb-lengthening usually isn't performed on anyone over 5-foot-9.

Is the procedure safe?
Not necessarily. A 2006 study in the journal International Orthopaedics found that "complications of this treatment are frequent." They include nerve damage, uneven lengthening, hip problems, and paralysis.

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This treatment must really hurt, right?
Absolutely. Even if the procedure is performed flawlessly, it's excruciatingly painful, and doctors don't prescribe anti-inflammatory painkillers because they might inhibit bone growth. "Jack," a 5-foot-6 man who flew to China for the operation, says on the website Short Persons Support that becoming 5-foot-9 "is the worst decision I made in my life," and "not nearly worth the pain."

Who opts for leg-lengthening? 
Most patients have severe deformities or dwarfism, Dr. Dror Paley, an orthopedic surgeon in Florida who performed about 650 leg-lengthening surgeries last year, tells ABC News. And many people who get treatment for cosmetic reasons "have what we call height dysphoria," he says. "They're unhappy with their height," and haven't been able to overcome their despair through therapy. Shukla describes being under 5 feet tall as "a void inside me — an emptiness in my heart," adding that "everybody is trying to alter what God gave them. If God gave kids crooked teeth, they get braces."

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Sources: ABC News, Digital Journal, Inquisitr, International Orthopaedics, LimeLife, Short Statured People of Australia, Short Persons Support (2), WTOP

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