New Limb-Lengthening Tech

posted in Scientific American

New Limb-Lengthening Tech

A move to lengthen limbs internally rather than via an external scaffold could reduce the effects of painful treatments, especially among younger patients

Screaming woke Lanz Ellingsworth. The piercing cries were loud, they were shrill — and they were coming from his daughter’s bedroom.

At 8:30 p.m., Ellingsworth and his wife had tucked their youngest, Lindsay, in for the night. They read her a bedtime story, kissed her on both cheeks and crept out of the room. Six hours later, their little girl was a mass of quivering agony.

In the middle of the night Lindsay had shifted slightly in her sleep. The abnormally brittle femur in her left leg splintered into multiple pieces. She woke from her dreams and plunged into a living nightmare.

“When I woke up that night, what I kept repeating was that ‘somebody hit me with a sledgehammer,’ Lindsay says. “That’s how it felt. Somebody literally smashed my leg with something. And I just screamed.”

Lindsay, a tiny, freckled eight-year-old, was used to pain. She was born with a congenital limb deformity called “underdeveloped femur condition,” in which one leg is shorter than the other by more than two centimeters. Up to 100,000 people are diagnosed with limb-length disorders in the U.S. each year, according to Bart Balkman, vice president of Ellipse Technologies, an Irvine, Calif.–based orthopedics company.

Left untreated, the condition can result in chronic pain, loss of mobility, degenerative arthritis and debilitating scoliosis, an abnormal and painful curvature of the spine that typically progresses throughout one’s lifetime. At birth or shortly thereafter parents whose children have a severe discrepancy (estimates range from a two- to three-centimeter or more differential) must make a decision—amputate the shorter limb or commit to a lengthening regimen to equalize them.

“Can you ever imagine having a child and loving that child and being told that part of your child’s leg had to be amputated?” says David Hootnick an orthopedic surgeon in Onondaga County, N.Y., who studies congenital abnormalities. “Can you imagine the emotional stress you’d have to go through?”

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