Surgery can correct legs that are different lengths as well as help increase a person’s height. Because the surgical procedure requires time and frequent adjustments, not all patients who want the surgery are good candidates. While doctors can do the surgery on those of all ages, it’s typically performed on young people.
This article will describe surgery to get taller, including some of the approaches, considerations, and recovery outlook.
Surgery to get taller, also known as limb-lengthening surgery, involves surgical approaches to stimulate bone growth in the legs. This approach often involves several surgeries to lengthen not only the leg or legs but also the tendons in the legs.
Some of the earliest described limb-lengthening approaches involved applying traction — stretching pressure — to the limbs to encourage them to grow.
Limb-lengthening surgery is typically performed to correct legs that grow unequal in size. For example, a doctor may recommend limb-lengthening surgery if a person has one leg that is abnormally short compared to the other, due to injury or conditions present at birth.
Doctors will not usually recommend the procedure unless a person has a leg length difference of a least 2 centimeters. Otherwise, a doctor may recommend other treatments, such as wearing a shoe insert to correct limb differences.
However, a person may not experience symptoms until their leg length difference is at least 4 centimeters, according to the
Underlying causes that can lead to differences in leg length include:
- birth defects that impact bone growth
- cerebral palsy
- history of broken bones or injuries to the lower legs affecting growth
- history of poliomyelitis
- history of shortened or tight muscles
- Legg-Perthes disease, which affects the hips
Limb-lengthening surgery is more common in young adults ages 18 to 25, near the end of bone growth. However, in rare cases the procedure may be performed in older adults.
If a person’s bones aren’t growing anymore, a doctor will usually recommend leg-shortening or leg-restriction surgery.
While limb-lengthening surgery does correct cosmetic concerns, a person can experience side effects due to having legs of unequal length. Examples include scoliosis — curving of the spine — or pelvic misalignment.
Because limb-lengthening procedures are invasive, there are risks. These include reactions to anesthesia, bleeding, and infections, particularly at the pin sites.
One review of literature about bone-lengthening surgery procedures and outcomes reports that
There’s also a risk the surgery will be ineffective due to the bones improperly healing. Some patients may also heal in a way where the bones are not straight.
A doctor should discuss the long-term effects of limb-lengthening surgery with you.
- joint stiffness
- skin pain
- soft tissue tightness
- increased risk for bone breaks or fractures
A surgeon can perform one of two approaches to limb-lengthening surgery: by applying pins and a frame outside the leg — called an external fixator — or by inserting a nail, called an intramedullary nail, into the bone. The nail can be lengthened over time to support bone growth and elongation.
Either surgical approach involves general anesthesia, where a person is completely asleep during the procedure.
A common surgical approach involves:
- cutting the bone in a key area
- applying metal pins and screws in the bone
- attaching external metal devices to the pins. Doctors call these devices “fixators” and they help to pull the cut area of the bone apart to encourage new bone growth.
Once a person achieves their desired results, a doctor will remove the pins. The maximum amount a surgeon can lengthen the legs varies but is usually limited to around
A doctor will give specific instructions on how to prepare for surgery. This may include:
- refrain from eating or drinking after midnight the day before the surgery
- stop taking any medications or herbal supplements that the doctor directs you to in the days before surgery
- ensure a person has a ride to surgery and from the hospital once discharged
- pack personal care items, such as comfortable clothing to wear in the hospital, toothbrush, toothpaste, non-skid slip-on shoes, and other personal care items
A doctor may have further instructions on items to bring.
A doctor will give you instructions about activity level in the post-surgical period. Sometimes, you may have to stay in the hospital for several days following the surgery for observation and physical therapy.
Most people will be limited to light activity, and may use crutches to move around. A doctor will also recommend taking vitamin D and calcium supplements to promote bone growth.
Some people may need to wear splints and braces. The doctor will also perform “distraction” to lengthen the legs. This is the process of moving the fixator or the nail. A doctor will begin this process several days after surgery, and you may have several additional appointments for adjustments.
As a person’s body continues to heal, their doctor may expand your activity level to include full weight-bearing movement. A doctor may also recommend physical therapy to improve activity levels.
For most people, the journey to even out limbs takes about 1 year from the first surgery to removal of an implant or fixator. Times may vary based on the surgical approach and patient’s response to treatment. The process involves frequent trips to a doctor’s office, which requires significant commitment on the patient’s part.
The success rate for limb-lengthening surgery is about 95 percent, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery.
Surgery to get taller can help correct differences in leg length that could lead to adverse side effects, and can also address cosmetic concerns. Surgical innovations mean a person may not have to wear an external fixator or fixators as they once did.
Appropriate patient selection is important for this procedure, and a doctor will carefully evaluate a person, their condition, overall health, and prognosis before recommending surgery.