Agonising cosmetic leg surgery that can make you more than 6 inches taller

The demand for cosmetic leg lengthening, also known as stature lengthening, is on the rise, particularly among young men. Thanks to technological advances, changing attitudes toward cosmetic procedures, and growing entrepreneurialism among orthopaedic surgeons, clinics all over the world are competing for patients. Yet there is also concern about this growth industry. What does it say about a society where potentially vulnerable people are lining up for major surgery? And what is motivating the surgeons who offer it?

“What’s driving it, sadly, is cash,” says Dr. Dror Paley, a pioneering orthopaedic surgeon in Florida and one of the world’s most experienced limb-lengthening specialists. He now gets half a dozen inquiries from new patients every day, up from one a day only five years ago. “For the first time, orthopaedic surgeons have a piece of the plastic surgery business, but that doesn’t mean it’s being done well,” he says. “In fact, patients are being preyed upon and are coming to me with horrible complications.”

The operation is a remarkable feat of medical engineering—and not for the squeamish. Techniques and devices vary. Paley’s version uses nails or rods similar to those that have long been employed to stabilise bad fractures. But when he drills out the marrow cavity and drives in the nail, he also intentionally breaks the bone in half.

The clever bit comes after the operation itself. A handheld device positioned against the leg at home creates a magnetic field. This activates a magnetic screwing mechanism inside the nail, which is telescopic. At a typical rate of a millimetre per day, spread across three or four activations of a few minutes each, the nail pulls the two sections of bone apart. The body makes new bone tissue to bridge the growing gap.

This extension process lasts several weeks and involves a period of relative immobility, sometimes necessitating time in a wheelchair, and months of physiotherapy to help the muscles adapt. Once the lengthening is complete, the nail can be removed.

Patients typically extend both femurs (thigh bones) by up to 8 cm (3.1 inches). The pain apparently comes not from the magnetic activation but from the overall effects of surgery and a double leg fracture. It is also possible to extend the tibias, or shin bones, by up to 5 cm (2 inches).

Paley, who operates on around a dozen UK patients per year, charges $95,500 (£83,000) for both femurs and up to $275,000 (£240,000) for a two-year package that extends all four leg bones for a height gain of up to 16 cm (6.2 inches). A handful of UK surgeons offer leg-lengthening procedures, charging between £50,000 and £70,000 for both femurs. Prices can drop to around half that, depending on the device used, in “cosmetic tourism” hotspots such as Turkey and India.

A 32-year-old American, who prefers not to share his name, wanted to extend all four leg bones to go from 5 feet, 8 inches to 6 feet. He tells me he paid around $50,000 at the Wanna Be Taller clinic in Istanbul—a quarter of the price he had been quoted in the US. “I worked 80-hour weeks and took out loans to pay for it,” he says.

What concerns Paley is not growing international competition but the fact that generalist orthopaedists are increasingly marketing themselves as specialists without the right experience, infrastructure, or awareness of complications. These can include infections, blood clots, joint dislocation, and a sometimes fatal condition in which fat expelled by the rod ends up in the lungs. “You have the potential to handicap a patient – it has to be taken extremely seriously,” Paley says. He points out that China outlawed stature lengthening in 2006 after a reported spate of botched operations.

Hamish Simpson, a surgeon, and professor of orthopaedics and trauma at the University of Edinburgh, does not offer cosmetic lengthening, but increasingly gets inquiries from shorter men. “I nearly always try to talk them out of it,” he says. He estimates that, even in the best hands, the risk of complications is twice that of, for example, a knee replacement.

Source: The Guardian