The painful, expensive and increasingly popular operation to lengthen the legs and increase height
The Colombian Esteban Ordóñez spent several months away from home, in a cold and unknown country, with both fractured tibias and devices hooked to his legs to grow a few centimeters.
Ordóñez (not his real name) was 20 years old when he decided to end a short complex that had him “desperate”. He was 1.61 meters tall and felt bad about himself, to such an extent that his complex had become a “psychological problem”, he explains to BBC Mundo in a Skype conversation.
After discussing it with his father and “searching and searching for a method to grow”, in 2014 he traveled to the Ilizarov Center for Restorative Traumatology and Orthopedics in Kurgan, Russia. There, 12,600 kilometers from his native Cali, he spent five months alone, in the middle of the Russian winter, after undergoing a painful operation to increase his height.
After fracturing the tibia bone in two places, two external fixation devices were attached to the bone using two long screws. Every day Esteban grew millimeter by millimeter. After five months, it had grown 5.5 centimeters.
The doctors also corrected a deformity in his feet that made them slightly twisted, and corrected the arching of his legs. But for him, the main reason for so much effort was clear: increasing his height.
His family paid 16,000 euros between the treatment, the plane ticket, the visa and the “extra” food, because this Colombian had a hard time adapting to the “not very tasty” food from a Russian hospital.
Pain and discipline
The name of the hospital where Esteban was operated on refers to the Soviet doctor Graviil A. Ilizarov, who developed the first technique that allowed limb lengthening to see that if a bone underwent a separation process, it could regenerate.
The principles he discovered in the 1950s still apply worldwide to correct birth defects, treat children with differences in the length of their limbs, or people who have lost bone substance after an accident, for example. But more and more people are undergoing these painful, expensive and not without complications for aesthetic reasons.
Esteban, who recounted his experience on a blog, receives constant questions from people who also want to increase his height.
“Hello, my name is Carol, I am 21 years old and I am 1.55m tall. I would like to know if you can grow from 8 to 10cm and how much would it cost,” writes one Internet user on the blog.
BBC Mundo spoke with another young Latin American who traveled to a center in the United States and who said he had paid US $ 175,000 to grow 12 centimeters from the 1.69 he measured. But this person did not want his testimony to appear in this report for fear that his identity would be discovered.
“I didn’t think it would hurt that much”
Esteban, young Colombian
In addition to the United States and Russia, these interventions are also carried out in other countries, although with different prices and level of development of the technique. The surgeons consulted mention China, India, Egypt and Armenia, among others.
In India, for example, there are women who undergo operations to grow and thus improve their marital possibilities. But the sector there “lacks regulation,” according to The Guardian newspaper in a report, and the operations are sometimes carried out by doctors without the necessary qualifications.
Some people do it behind the back of family or friends and only tell it to a very intimate and close circle. That is what Ordóñez did, who told it only to his family and his girlfriend.
“It is not the same as surgery on the tits or nose. It is very hard, too much discipline requires,” says Ordóñez, who is now 22 years old.
” I didn’t think it was going to hurt that much, ” he says.
Only low sizes
The intervention requires periods of rest while the bone regenerates and consolidates, and very demanding rehabilitation exercises to ensure that the joints do not lose mobility. Ordóñez was with the devices in place for two months and at first he took pain relievers. He also went through a depression and lost 15 kilos.
And despite the difficulties, he has no regrets at all. On the contrary, he says that “he is very happy” and that he feels relieved.
“I know I don’t suffer from dwarfism, but it’s a very ugly complex. Now I feel good about myself .”
One of the doctors who perform these bone-lengthening procedures (in most cases, patients with deformations or dysmetries in the extremities) is Alejandro Baar, from the Las Condes clinic in Chile. Baar explained to BBC Mundo that before considering the operation, the patient undergoes general examinations to rule out any disease or contraindication that could complicate the intervention.
In addition, a psychologist examines patients and the possible risks are communicated to them. Among them, “infections, stiff joints or bone fracture.”
“More than 90% of the people who do bone lengthening have a disease “
Alejandro Baar, orthopedic surgeon
“There are centers that are dedicated only to aesthetic lengthening,” explains Baar.
“But more than 90% of the people I do bone lengthening have a disease.”
The rest are people with short statues “constitutional”, that is, short but healthy people.
“The controversial issue goes this way,” says Baar, who considers himself more as a traditional orthopedic surgeon than as a plastic surgeon.
The operations that he carries out usually last between three and four hours and the patient must have the devices in place “about 35 days for each elongated centimeter”. The average height increase is 7.5 centimeters and the cost is over US $ 40,000 .
In the event that the motivation is aesthetic, Baar only treats patients who ” really have a short stature .”
In Chile, a man is considered short if he measures less than 1.60 meters and in the case of women, if they measure less than 1.50 meters.
” If they have an average height, I don’t . In that case, with the operation, their life will not change at all,” says Baar.
But not all doctors proceed in the same way.
In the United States, one of the doctors who performs height-increasing operations is Dr. Dror Paley, trained under Ilizarov in Russia and former director of the International Center for Lengthening of Limbs at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
Paley uses a single internal procedure, less invasive than external fixation and more advanced. It is an adjustable intramedullary nail that eliminates the need for an external fixation device. The extendable nail is adjusted via remote control magnet technology.
On his institute’s website, where he explains the height gain procedure, Paley asks a question that some people probably ask themselves.
“Is there a threshold above which height gain is inappropriate?”
And the answer for him is no. “The main problem is the psychological perception of height and proportion . We call this the body image,” the page reads.
“Height dysphoria is a disorder related to body image. The patient is perceived as short , regardless of his actual height and how others see him.”
Paley “has learned to eliminate his personal height bias in the assessment,” he explains on the Paley Institute Height Increase Center page at St. Mary’s Medical Center.
“It is the patient’s perception that counts. The risks of the procedure are not greater if you are taller.”
Another doctor who receives patients from all over the world is Shahab Mahboubian, who has a clinic in North Hollywood, California (USA).
“It is a procedure that changes people’s lives”
Shahab Mahboubian, orthopedic surgeon
On his website targeting potential patients, Mahboubian says the surgery “used to be reserved for those with genetic abnormalities that caused an abnormally short stature, such as dwarfism, or for those with severe deformities.”
“However, more and more surgeons who practice it have begun to offer it as an alternative procedure for those who are simply unhappy with their height .”
Mahboubian explained to BBC Mundo that many of his patients are men with low self-esteem in their relationships due to their height.
“It is a procedure that changes people’s lives,” said the surgeon.
“The new techniques make (the intervention) increasingly popular, ” said Mahboubian, who declined to say how much he charges for the operation.
“I do not do the operation on people who are above average height. It is not for everyone, only for people who need to be taller, for their work or for their relationships.”