What is Distraction Osteogenesis?

what is distraction osteogenesis

Distraction osteogenesis is a medical term for, “making a short bone grow longer.” While the technique was first engineered and used in 1903, it was perfected during the 1950s by a Russian orthopedic surgeon named Dr. Gabriel Ilizarov. At that time, the procedure was used to heal deformities of the arms and legs. In fact, you may be familiar with the idea of distraction osteogenesis since the media heavily covered it during the 1990s when the Chinese were using it as an elective cosmetic surgery to make people taller.

As of the 1990s, distraction osteogenesis (DO) is now being used to treat certain deformities, abnormalities or trauma affecting the jaw or facial bone structure.

How Does Distraction Osteogenesis Work?

We appreciate the ability to use DO because this minimally invasive surgical procedure leverages the body’s ability to regenerate and heal itself. Anyone who has ever broken a bone understands this rigid organ’s remarkable ability to grow and weave itself a new matrix. We harness this ability with DO by:

  • Separating a bone into two pieces using a simple, straightforward cut
  • Placing the two halves of the bone in the preferred location or position
  • Inserting a distractor that very slowly pulls the bone apart over the course of two or more months
  • Allowing the bone to grow back (osteogenesis) to fill the gap

Most of the time, this process requires about two months from surgical procedure to final outcome. While the initial procedure is done in our office, the rest of the healing takes place while you’re going about the rest of your daily life. In fact, after your initial post-surgical check-ups (more on that below) you are the one who will be controlling the device that pulls the bones apart – as per the doctor’s careful instructions and specific schedule.

In addition to taking advantage of your body’s natural growth and healing mechanisms, DO is an ideal treatment method for significant bone deformities because it allows for bigger corrections than most single surgeries. It also minimizes the amount of corrective surgeries most of our patients would have to endure to permanently correct their issues otherwise.

Distraction osteogenesis is virtually painless & scar-free

While the process itself may sound excruciating when you read about it, it’s actually quite the opposite. The DO procedure is performed using a general anesthesia, so there is no discomfort during the surgery. Once it is complete, patients are sent home with painkillers to keep them comfortable and antibiotics to minimize the risk of infection.

In fact, when all is said and done, the majority of our patients tell us that the slow stretching and growing of their jaw and/or facial bone(s) via DO is less painful than when they had their braces tightened. DO is considered a minimally invasive procedure and is almost always “outpatient,” meaning we perform it right here in the comfort of our office. The nature of the straightforward procedure also minimizes post-surgical swelling and pain.

Another benefit of DO is that it does not leave any visible scarring on the forehead, face or jaw line. Dr. Walker performs all of his incisions on the interior surface of the mouth, leaving your face free from scarring.

Who is a Candidate for Distraction Osteogenesis?

The most common reasons clients require DO surgery include:

  • Cleft palate
  • Crouzon syndrome
  • Apert syndrome
  • An improperly formed lower jaw
  • Additional craniosynostosis syndromes
  • Deformities resulting from traumatic injuries
  • Those in need of bone graft surgery

While anyone of any age can qualify for DO, depending on their general health, younger patients typically have the shortest distraction and post-procedure healing times. Older adults may take longer to heal due to the fact that bone growth slows down as we age.

In almost all cases, your pediatrician, a general physician, or your dentist will refer you to our office. We will schedule you for a consultation and discuss the best treatment methods and schedule of treatment to facilitate the ultimate goal of a healthy, happy face and jaw structure.

Because this treatment is widely used to repair medical issues, health insurance providers almost always cover the procedure. The exceptions may include the use of DO for cosmetic procedures (changing your jaw structure for aesthetic, rather than medical, reasons) or those requiring bone grafting for dental implants. Since insurance carrier benefits vary from patient to patient, we’ll work with your insurance company to get you the maximum coverage possible if we establish DO is the best treatment for your particular diagnosis.

What are the drawbacks to DO?

The only disadvantage of DO is that you will have to return to the office several times in the first two weeks after your surgery. During the course of these visits, Dr. Walker will check that you are healing well, that there’s no infection, and that the bone is growing, as it should. He will also teach you how to activate the device so you can take over from there as per his instructions. Also, depending on the reason for the surgery, you may have to return a final time after your bone has grown to have the distraction device removed – but again, this is performed during an outpatient office visit.

In the bigger picture, these routine, post-surgical visits certainly beat the repeat surgical procedures that might have taken place had you opted to use a different surgical treatment.

Contact Los Gatos Oral & Facial Surgery

Do you or your child require distraction osteogenesis to heal an existing issue in the jaw or face? Contact us here and Los Gatos Oral & Facial Surgery and we’ll be happy to schedule you for a consultation.