A vertically challenged member of Team Costhetics recently said, “I’d give anything to be taller.” How about $40,000 worth taller?

That’s what Queensland councillor Hajnal Ban spent to increase her height by eight centimetres. “Doctors broke both her legs in four places and inserted stainless-steel rings in a painful lengthening procedure lasting nine months, during which time she grew about 1 millimetre a day,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald in 2009.

Eleven years later, Ban is 162 centimetres tall and the merits of this radical cosmetic surgery are still being questioned. In our quest to report the latest news and information about aesthetic enhancement, Costhetics researched what advocates, detractors, and patients had to say. Here’s what we heard…

Professionals Debate Leg Lengthening Pros & Cons

Leg lengthening is unnecessary and dangerous, say some physicians. They have deemed it a mis-use of a procedure developed in the 1950’s, and say it has too many risks outweighing the cosmetic benefits.

As with many evolving cosmetic enhancement technologies and techniques, “ethics and regulation have not kept pace with speed of change,” says the Encyclopedia of Surgery in its article Leg Lengthening/Shortening. In 2006, a study published in International Orthopaedics reported leg-lengthening surgery to be fraught with frequent complications with risks including

  • Nerve damage
  • Hip problems
  • Uneven lengthening
  • Unnatural, unhealthy stretching of blood vessels
  • Paralysis

Another concern is the danger to medical tourists, like Ban who had her procedure in Siberia. Should complications arise, patients are left on their own to figure out how and where to get help.

Surgeons that perform leg lengthening surgeries say this is all nonsense. They are adamant they provide a valuable service to people whose lives are negatively affected by a short stature. As for patients, those in search of a few more centimetres feel naysayers should have no say over whether they alter their bodies. Both groups point to risks in other aesthetic procedures such as breast augmentation, breast implants, and even gender re-assignment surgery, and say “Why not legs?”

Leg Lengthening from the Surgeon’s Perspective

Leg lengthening starts with a surgeon’s knife, but the real work is done by your body which can be coaxed to create new bone tissue, along with the nerves, blood vessels, ligaments, and soft tissues that surround it. Here’s what happens:

  • Osteotomy Phase – The first step in leg lengthening surgery is to cut through the leg bone and then stabilise it with internal/external fixation devices (also known as frames). Large incisions and bone grafts are not necessary. The majority of patients receive epidural anaesthesia, and some choose to remain awake during surgery. A two-day stay in hospital is the norm, though some patients stay as long as a week.
  • Distraction Phase – The bone that has been cut is pulled gently with the aid of a fixation device to increase the space between the two pieces. This process promotes growth of new bone tissue at the osteotomy site. (The medical term for this is distraction osteogenesis).

Daily adjustments are made to the pins in the fixation devices in response to the opening of the bone and the production of new tissue until the desired length of bone tissue is achieved. Patients become mobile at this phase, learning to walk again with the aid of crutches.

  • Consolidation/Healing Phase – The healing process is a slow one, requiring between eight to ten weeks of limited activity and sometimes a leg cast. Intensive physical therapy comes next. Some patients may need a full year to regain normal knee control and function while others are good to go in just six months.

After a year, the surgeon removes any implanted medical devices in a surgery performed under general anaesthesia, and the leg lengthening is complete. Calcium supplements, a nutritious diet, and gradual weight-baring exercise all contribute to a smooth recovery. Some surgeons recommend the use of ultrasound and/or electromagnetic devices to stimulate bone growth at the site.

Will This Give Men a Leg Up on their Competition?

Research says the answer to this question is yes. Statistically speaking, taller men are more likely to be in power positions than shorter men. Why? Height is equated with strength and stamina at the workplace and that translates into higher earnings for a business. In The Financial Perks of Being Tall, the Atlantic reported dramatic statistics like this:

  • The difference for men in the 75th percentile of height vs the 25th (a difference of about 10.1 centimetres) is associated with earnings that are 9-15% higher.

Extra Height Means Extra Respect for Women

Like their male colleagues, tall women get the lioness’s share of the wealth. According to The Telegraph, women who are 172.7 centimetres are

  • Twice as likely to earn a salary of £30,000 (GBP) or more ($60,000 AUD)
  • Take home £5,000 (GBP) more than shorter female colleagues ($9700 AUD)
  • 80% more likely to achieve a managerial role

Leg Lengthening: Do We Really Need It?

Height is an asset to men and women in their personal, professional, and love lives. In the past, a short stature might have been addressed through therapy or dealt with physically with platform shoes. Should we return to that approach? After all, cosmetic leg lengthening costs tens of thousands of dollars and requires months of physical therapy.

One thing is certain, medical treatments seldom go backwards. An editorial in the Journal of Limb Lengthening & Reconstruction refers to the surgery “the elephant in the room” and calls for “harm minimisation not prohibition.” When he addressed colleagues at a symposium in Brisbane, he said, “The genie is already out of the bottle, and there is no putting it back. Prohibition, does not, and will not work. What we need is an enlightened policy for harm minimisation.”

Costhetics applauds the efforts of physicians and lawmakers coming together to safeguard the health and well-being of patients.

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