In what now appears to be a never-ending list of extreme surgeries, ‘leg-lengthening’ is the new addition everyone should know about. The drastic cosmetic procedure involves breaking a patient’s femurs in order to insert adjustable metal nails—all in a bid to become three to six inches taller. Beauty is pain?
According to the BBC, at leading centres across the US, Germany and South Korea, the procedure is carried out between 100 and 200 times a year—meanwhile in the UK, the figure is slightly lower at 15 times a year. The cost of the surgery can range from £56,000 up to £210,000 (between $75,000 and $280,000).
Firstly, a hole is drilled into the leg bones, which are then broken in two. A metal rod is surgically fitted inside the hole and held in place by a number of screws. The rod is then slowly lengthened by up to 1 millimetre each day, extending until the patient reaches their desired height and their bones can finally heal back together.
The origins of limb-lengthening surgery date back to the mid 20th century, however, most of our modern understanding comes from the Ilizarov method, which truly revolutionised the field. Named after the Russian physician Gavriil Ilizarov, the invention combines biology and biomechanics and consists of a circular external fixator—a device that helps stabilise pieces of broken bone.
While it should be noted that this technique has evolved since its introduction, the principles of the surgery—and therefore, its dangers—remain the same.
In September 2022, John Lovedale, a recipient of the surgery, told GQ that he paid £64,000 to go from 5 feet 8.5 inches to 5 feet 11.5 inches. Once both of his femurs had been broken and the titanium nails inserted, a magnetic remote control would extend both of Lovedale’s legs for approximately 90 days until—hey presto—he would have grown three inches taller. Not exactly a small price to pay, pun intended.
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Lovedale went on to explain the surgery’s recovery process. Ultimately, this is an incredibly taxing procedure—the extension of the metal nails in both of his legs subjected him to indescribable pain and even took away his ability to walk for countless months. When asked by the publication why he decided to pursue the extreme operation in the first place, Lovedale jokingly responded: “I noticed that taller people just seem to have it easier. The world seems to bend for them.”
Another patient, Barny, was diagnosed in 2015 with a condition that required a leg-straightening surgery. Having to go through one painful procedure already, he opted to have his limbs lengthened simultaneously—supposedly a two-for-one deal?
His experience, however, was nothing short of a nightmare. Speaking to the BBC, he shared: “If I was 16 years old, perhaps it wouldn’t have been a problem. But when I had the operation I was 46. My legs were being pulled apart, but my bones never caught up. I had a three inch gap… just two sticks of bone and a metal bar in between.”
Barny continued: “It’s like every nerve in your legs are being stretched. There are times when you can’t escape anywhere in your head from the pain. It is excruciating.”
According to the Mount Sinai Health System, the primary potential medical consequences of the surgery include: blood clots, bone infection, nerve damage, breathing problems and bone growth restriction. In other words, pretty scary stuff.
Despite the countless risks associated with this controversial procedure, the leg-lengthening craze seems to show no sign of slowing down. A quick Google search reveals dozens of results promising to know the miracle cure to being shorter than average. “Be 5 inches taller in three months” and “How to grow taller overnight” are just two of the top links.
This is of course not the first cosmetic procedure to pose serious risks to patients. The oh-so-trendy BBL (short for ‘Brazilian Butt Lift’), which involves using a combination of liposuction and fat-grafting to add volume and defined curves to the backside of one’s body, has grown in both popularity and mortality rate—with the extensive surgery currently causing death in one in 3,000 cases, according to The Independent.
All that being said, it’s also incredibly important we recognise all of the different societal pressures that may have been contributing factors for those who have sought out leg-lengthening surgery. For example, as mentioned in the GQ article, a number of trans men have undergone the procedure in order to gain a stature that feels more like their authentic selves.
Shorter men may have also considered the surgery due to feeling less desirable because, for so long, society has peddled the false narrative that taller men are more attractive or more ‘manly’—whatever that’s supposed to mean.
So many of these life-altering surgeries play directly into people’s insecurities, such as wishing you were curvier, skinnier or indeed, taller. And while stigmas surrounding cosmetic surgery are wrong and individuals should have complete agency over their own bodies, there are some procedures such as this one that do beg the question: have we taken things too far?