Image: Jie Jie after surgery
Mark Ralston  /  AFP - Getty Images
The 2-month-old baby named Jie Jie from Anhui Province, China, is recovering after an operation to remove a third arm.
updated 6/7/2006 7:41:34 PM ET 2006-06-07T23:41:34

Doctors on Tuesday successfully removed an extremely rare, well-developed third arm from a 2-month-old Chinese boy, but said they were unsure how well his remaining left arm would respond to physical therapy.

Doctors successfully removed the one of Liu Junjie's two left arms that had laid across his chest, said chief surgeon Dr. Chen Bochang. A second left arm is further up on his shoulder.

"The surgery really went much better and smoother than expected because we found the nerves and blood vessels for the arm were formed just as they would be for a normal arm," Chen told reporters following the three-hour operation.

Chen said the baby will require long-term physical therapy to gain function in his remaining hand, which has no palm and flexes in either direction.

"We're hoping to exchange information with doctors who've dealt with similar cases anywhere in the world," said Chen, head of the orthopedics department at Shanghai Children's Medical Center. "This is so rare that we have virtually no information to go on."

Worried parents
Liu's mother said she was relieved the surgery was over but worried for her son's future.

"I'm very happy but there are some fears that I just can't let go," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used to maintain her privacy. "I worry about how he will grow, whether this will have a big impact on his growth."

IMAGE: Baby before surgery
Liu Junjie is shown before surgery. Both left arms were well formed, but neither was fully functional, so doctors opted to remove the arm that was smaller and lay bent close to the body.
Chen said was impressed by the concern showed by the couple, poor farmers from rural Anhui province, west of Shanghai.

"We'll be paying special attention to this child," he said.

Chen said doctors don't know what causes such additional limbs, although many speculate they start out as limbs of a conjoined twin that never developed. He ruled out environmental factors such as birth defect-causing pollution, saying that couldn't fully explain similar cases elsewhere.

Chen said no reliable figures exist on the frequency of such cases, partly because many fetuses with more than four limbs are aborted or miscarried. In most cases where the fetus survives, it's clear which limb is less developed and should be amputated.

Junjie's case was especially rare because both left arms were almost equally well developed. He said doctors decided to remove the one closest to the chest because it did not fully extend.

Because of shortfalls in China's rural health system, Liu Junjie's mother never received a sonogram before giving birth by cesarean section, Chen said.

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