May 08, 2023
Some men with the desire to be taller are turning to limb-lengthening surgeries to gain a few inches and escape the feeling of being judged by their physical statures. But the procedures are expensive, and doctors stress the potential complications.
The majority of limb-lengthening surgeries are not done simply to increase the patient's height. Rather, they are most often used to correct deformities or length discrepancies that have been present since birth or were caused by trauma or cancer, according to Dr. Samir Mehta, the chief of orthopaedic trauma and fracture care at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.
Mehta said he performs about 20 limb-lengthening surgeries a year, and only about 10% of them are for aesthetic reasons. The majority of his surgeries are done to correct genetic or acquired limb inequalities.
The people who choose to have their limbs lengthened for aesthetic reasons do it to feel better about themselves, Mehta said. One young man who is 5 feet, 1 inch came to Mehta because his growth plate had closed early and he had stopped growing.
"For him, it is a confidence issue," Mehta said. "There is a stigma about short stature. In some cultures, height is critical for advancement in business and society."
There are three stages to the limb-lengthening process: surgery, distraction and consolidation.
During the initial procedure, the surgeon cuts the bone to be lengthened and attaches a lengthening device to create a gap between the two parts of the bone. After the bone has had some time to heal, the two ends are gradually separated. This process – the second stage – stimulates the growth of new bone to fill in the gap between the two ends. The final stage occurs as the natural healing process fills in the gap, giving the surrounding nerve, muscles, tendons and ligaments time to adjust to the new length.
Originally external fixators – worn on the outside of the limb being lengthened – had to be used to treat discrepancies, but now internal implants can be used to achieve bone-lengthening, according to Dr. Erik Geiger, an orthopedic surgeon at Rothman Orthopaedics who did his fellowship on limb-lengthening and complex reconstruction at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. When an internal device is used, another surgery is later needed to remove it.
"As the technology has advanced, the surgery has become more accessible to orthopedic surgeons," Geiger said.
One 26-year-old man who had limb-lengthening surgery to increase his height from 5 feet, 7 inches to 5 feet, 10 inches recently told NBC News that he got the surgery because he was tired of people making jokes about his height. He said shorter men "routinely get spoken down to just because of this trait that they can't control."
The man, who used a pseudonym for his interview with NBC, estimated that he spent $100,000 to have his legs lengthened, with his insurance paying $10,000 for the follow-up surgery to remove the rods inserted during his initial procedure. He had to do physical therapy several days each week for four months. He started out using a walker and progressed to a cane before he could fully walk on his own.
Though the man initially was skeptical about the surgery, he decided it would make him happier in his body. "If all it is, is pain and money, alright," he said.
Studies have shown that short people face discrimination. One study found men preferred to date shorter women, and that women preferred taller men. Other research has found that taller people earn more money – a 6-foot tall person earns $166,000 more than a 5-foot-5 person over a 30-year career – and that the majority of chief executive officers are taller than 6 feet.
One Minnesota man said he spent more than $170,000 on two leg-lengthening surgeries because he was a victim of "heightism," didn't feel good about himself and wanted to get more dates.
"I was unhappy about it most of the time," Moses Gibson, 41, told Kennedy News and Media. "It was my self-confidence in general, and with the ladies. It affected my dating life. I used to put things in my shoes to gain a little bit of height, but it wasn't very much."
Before turning to surgery, Gibson said he tried going to a spiritual healer and taking pills to make himself taller. He underwent surgery in 2016 to add 3 inches to his 5-foot-5 frame. Then, he underwent a second surgery to add another 2 inches in March.
"I went in at 7:30 a.m. and by midday, they were waking me up out of the surgery," he said. "They give you powerful pain medication as there are times when it's really painful and you have to work through it. You go home and you have a week or two for some healing to happen before you get the device to start lengthening."
Some people of shorter statures experience body dysphoria, a mental condition in which people are hyper focused on one or more perceived flaws in their appearance that others view as minor, if they even notice them.
One man who underwent limb-lengthening surgery in 2015 feared he wouldn't be able to find a wife unless he became taller. The surgery added 3 inches to his 5-foot-4 frame.
"At my first consultation the doctor made it very clear how difficult the surgery was going to be," Sam Becker told BBC News in 2020. "I was concerned about what I would be able to do after getting those three inches. Will I still be able to walk? Will I still be able to run?"
After his operations, he underwent physical therapy three to four times each week for about six months.
"It was a very humbling experience, Becker said. "It is kind of crazy ... breaking both of your legs and learning to walk again. It's seen as a cosmetic surgery, but I did it a lot more personally for my mental health."
Though some people find limb-lengthening surgery appealing for cosmetic reasons, there are complications to consider. Risks include too much bone lengthening, poor bone formation, fractures and blood clots, according to the National Health Services in the United Kingdom. Some men who have undergone surgery in later adulthood have experienced gaps between their bones that caused excruciating pain during the lengthening process.
Dr. S. Robert Rozbruch, chief of the limb lengthening and complex reconstruction service at the Hospital for Special Surgery, told NBC News that he doesn't want leg-lengthening to be considered a quick cosmetic surgery. But he said it is safe when done by an experienced surgeon.