Height does make a difference, especially for men – in particular, it can affect job success and relationships. Congenital or genetic issues, trauma, infections, dwarfism and conditions like cerebral palsy, however, can leave people shorter than they would like to be, or with one leg shorter than the other. If that's the case, you may be considering limb lengthening or height surgery.
About the Surgery
Bone length – particularly in the legs – is the primary determining factor in a person's height. The three most important bones are the femur or thigh bone and the two bones in the lower leg – the tibia, or shin bone, and fibula. All of these bones can be lengthened with surgery. Although each condition is different, people can gain as much as six inches in height, according to the MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Between two and three inches is the average, however. Most orthopedic specialists recommend lengthening of the lower legs, although the femur can also be lengthened in a separate procedure. The surgery is usually performed on both legs at one time, unless the problem is a leg length discrepancy with one leg shorter than the other.
The Basic Principles
Limb lengthening surgery takes advantage of bones' innate healing capability. When a bone is injured, it can regenerate; new bone cells are produced to fill in any damaged areas or defects. The bone develops a “callus” in the area of a fracture, for example, that hardens as it heals and may even make the area stronger than it was originally. It can take as long as a year for the bone to reach full strength, although most people complete the process of height surgery and are walking normally again within about six months. Since the process is gradual, it also allows muscles to stretch and nerves and blood vessels to grow as well.
Preoperative preparation before limb lengthening or height surgery is important and can make a big difference in recovery time and eventual outcome. For example, strength in the arms is important in using crutches, and many people don't use the necessary muscles on a regular basis. Physical and mental preparation are both important. Some orthopedic surgeons recommend working with a personal trainer for several weeks prior to the surgery to build up muscles and improve cardiovascular fitness and flexibility.
The Procedure Itself
The original limb-lengthening surgery technique was developed by an orthopedic surgeon from Russia named Gaviriil Ilizarov; he used external metal frames with a manual dial that could be adjusted very slightly each day. Today, many orthopedic surgeons prefer to use internal adjustable devices as they have a lower risk of infection and are much more tolerable.
The procedure takes place while the patient is anesthetized. The surgery is performed with a general anesthetic, so you are completely relaxed during the procedure. The bone to be lengthened is cut and an adjustable metal rod is inserted into the bone. After the patient has recovered and is fully healed, another surgery is required to remove the metal hardware.
After a short hospital stay, patients use a walker to support their weight while walking and adjust the rod themselves each day with a magnetic device. New bone, nerves and blood vessels develop in the small gap and eventually heal completely. As the bone begins to develop and become stronger (a process called consolidation) the patient is allowed to bear more weight. In fact, weight bearing stimulates the healing process and encourages the growth of more dense bone.
The muscles, ligaments and tendons gradually stretch to accommodate the new length. Although the process is not completely pain free, it can be managed with medications. Physical therapy is part of the treatment during recovery. Diet is important, as the body is doing a lot of work to heal the area and build new bone. Some surgeons recommend specific vitamin or mineral supplements, and it's important for the patient to eat adequate protein and a diet high in calcium and other bone-building materials.
Candidates for Height Surgery
Anyone who is in good general health can be a candidate for surgery. It's important that the bones have finished growing, however, so it's rare that the surgery is performed on someone less than 16 years old. A person who is obese may not be a good candidate due to the risk that the fixators or rods may break. Doctors may advise weight loss prior to the surgery. People who have serious heart and lung diseases or chronic infections like AIDS may not be good candidates because the increased risk of complications outweighs the potential benefits of the surgery.
Mental health is important too, as the healing process is lengthy and it's easy to get discouraged. It's also important for people to have realistic expectation about what surgery can achieve. Some medications may increase the risk of complications, and the orthopedic specialist may advise against surgery if the medication is required by an individual patient.
If you're considering limb lengthening or height surgery, consult an orthopedic specialist with experience in the procedure. The surgery could give you the extra inches you've always wanted or help balance the difference in length between your legs after an injury or congenital problem. Becoming taller may be within your reach.