BBC2 9:30pm Thursday 17th February 2000
What happens when a completely healthy person wants their leg amputated?
Gregg is 55 and does not feel physically whole. This is despite the fact that
he is physically healthy and able-bodied. Gregg believes he is incomplete with
two legs and it has been his life-long struggle to get doctors to agree that
removing one of his legs is the right thing for him. He isn't delusional. He
knows what he is asking for and knows it is strange. But he cannot help his
feelings. Gregg suffers from a rare but genuine psychological disorder - a form
of body dysmorphia. And Gregg is not alone.
Although Body Dysmorphia is rare, a worldwide network of sufferers is growing
and demanding treatment. It affects both men and women and each person has a
precise sense of which limb or limbs they want removed.
Cases were cited a hundred years ago but still very little is known about the
disorder. No one knows what causes it and very few psychiatrists have even
encountered patients with the disorder. All that the patients seem to have in
common is a strong memory of the first amputee they saw. They also report that
the feelings started in childhood. However, the profession is now being forced
to respond and devise methods of treatment. If not treated, it has been
reported that suffers can go to extreme lengths to remove the unwanted limbs
themselves. Some have even committed suicide.
The difficulty with the condition is that the conventional methods for treating
psychological problems, drugs and therapy, do not seem to be effective. The
only treatment that does seem to be effective is surgery - actually removing
the limb. The idea of using surgery is highly controversial and has divided the
medical community. Some physicians consider it much too drastic a measure,
possibly conflicting with their Hippocratic oath, not to cause harm. Others
believe that it is the only way to free the patient of their obsession,
'curing' them of their psychological problem.
At the present time, there is only one surgeon in Britain who has been prepared
to perform such operations and who has publicly defended his decision. He has
operated on two patients, both of who claim to be delighted with their new
body-image and now free to get on with the rest of their lives.
There are many other patients who seek similar treatment. Horizon 'Complete
Obsession' follows a year in the lives of people who are body dysmorphic and
are determined to have their limbs surgically removed. It follows the process
they go through to try and achieve their goal.