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Perplexed about how to get taller? You won't need elevator shoes if you visit a Russian clinic now offering leg-lengthening surgery.

The British newspaper The Daily Mail reports the story of Hajnal Ban, a then-29 year-old Israeli-born Australian barrister and politician who finally decided she had had enough teasing about her height, 5'0" (132 cm) in 2002. She made the trip from Australia to Kurgan, a city in southeastern Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway on the frontier with Kazakhstan, to have excruciatingly painful leg surgery to make her 3" (a little under 8 cm) taller.

The Daily Mail also reports the story of Peter Croft, a then-33 year-old information technology consultant who made the trip from the UK to the same town in Russia after researching his options for lengthening one of his legs for two years. Croft had been born with one leg that was 2 inches (5 cm) shorter than the other.

Both of these intrepid seekers of normal height and over 100,000 other people have traveled to Russia to be fitted with a device known as the Ilizarov frame, which in some cases has increased a user's height as much as a foot (25 cm).

Dr. Ilizarov and His Frame

Gavriil Ilizarov was born into a poor peasant family on a farm near Białowieża, Poland in 1921. Shortly after he was born, his parents fled to Azerbaijan, where he grew up. Ilizarov completed a course of study in a "rabfak," an institution designed to prepare workers for higher education, and was admitted to a medical school. During World War II, he was evacuated to Kazakhstan, and in the 1950's he became Chief of the Department of Trauma and Orthopedics at a veteran's hospital in the Siberian town of Kurgan.

In treating difficult cases, Ilizarov noticed that sometimes when it was not possible to set a fracture, the two ends of the bone left separated would eventually grow to join each other. Ilizarov reasoned that when bones were deformed or too short, if might be possible to intentionally break them into two segments and to gradually move them as they grew back together so that the bone would lengthen. The procedure came to be known as "distraction" osteogenesis; in this case, "distraction" means the "opposite of traction," not that the bones are somehow fooled into growing longer. 

To hold the bones just the right distance apart as they grew toward each other so that the final bone would be longer, Ilizarov invented a frame using circular rings that allowed growth of the soft tissue. Other surgeons in the United States had worked on the problem for many years, but it was Ilizarov's device that allowed for soft tissue growth to support the growth of bone.

The Key to Successful Distraction Osteogenesis

Ilizarov and other physicians recognized early on that the key to successful treatment was to make sure the two ends of the bone were separated at just the right rate. Bones knit together over a fracture, but if the gap between the two ends is too long, they grown fibrous tissue rather than bone. If the gap between the two ends is too narrow, then the result can be malformed bone. Distraction osteogenesis is not a process that can be rushed. While a small fracture might heal in a few weeks, adding 5 inches to the length of a bone takes most of a year.

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