The Ilizarov Procedure is a surgical operation for correcting bone deformities, traumatic injuries, and lengthening of limbs that are of irregular size. In this procedure, the limbs are gradually straightened or stretched, and allowed to strengthen.

Professor Gavriil Abramovich Ilizarov invented and improved the surgical procedure that bears his name in the years following World War II, while stationed as a medical doctor in Kirgan, Siberia. Doctor Ilizarov received many patients with severe war traumas and bone deformities, and faced with a lack of medicine and supplies, he created his own orthopedic recovery technique that is still being used today.

At the heart of the Ilizarov Procedure is a mechanical device called the Ilizarov Fixator. The fixator consists of two circular frames at that surround the limb concentrically. Wires run axially from one end of the frame through holes in the bone, to the other end of the frame. The wires anchor the two frames at specific locations on the limb. Several rods are attached between the two frames, encasing the limb. This type of fixator can be used to heal a bone that has been broken at a location between the two circular frames. The advantage of the fixator over a (plaster or fiberglass) cast is that limb movement is less restricted, reducing muscle atrophy.

The Ilizarov Procedure works on the principle of distraction osteogenesis. The limb that is to be corrected is perforated several times around the bone to obtain a clean break (corticotomy). The bone marrow and blood vessels must be spared as they are essential for successful bone regrowth. The Ilizarov Fixator is attached to the broken limb, and the bone is allowed to regrow. Each day, the two frames are pushed apart by readjustment of the interconnecting rods. This process effectively lengthens the bone.

Bones can be grown at approximately one millimeter per day. Thus, a limb can be grown one inch in approximately one month. If the frames are pushed apart at faster rates, the bone may become too brittle, or bone growth could stop entirely. For each month of bone lengthening, the cast needs to be worn for an additional two months to allow hardening of the bone tissue.

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A photo in the New York Times shows a young Chinese woman with both her legs in Ilizarov Fixators. She has been in the painful leg-stretching therapy for 22 months, in order to gain 4 inches in height. The procedure has failed: the young woman can no longer walk.

The Ilizarov Procedure is commonly used for cosmetic purposes in China. Height is a physical trait that many Chinese men and women look for in their potential partner. It also opens up well paid job opportunities such as foreign diplomacy (China's Foreign Ministry requires male applicants to be 5-foot-7 tall). It should come to no surprise that hundreds of Chinese men and women resort to methods to increase their height, such as hormone therapy and the Ilizarov Procedure.

Unfortunately, many of these people are being treated by doctors who are not properly trained in the Ilizarov Procedure. They end up with brittle or permanently broken bones, problems with walking, nerve damage, and misaligned feet. Despite the risks and the $6000 price tag, increasing numbers of people are undergoing the operation.

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Sources:
New York Times, Sunday May 5, 2002, p.3.
http://www.azumc.com/specialtycare/types/Ilizaro.htm
http://www.ilizarov.org.uk/

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