Xenomelia, literally meaning “foreign limb,” is a neuropsychiatric condition in which nonpsychotic individuals have an intense, persistent belief that one or more of their limbs does not belong to their body; instead they regard it as an alien appendage that should be discarded.1 This unwavering, fixed belief resembles a delusion and is often debilitating to the point where the affected person strongly desires amputation of the unwanted limb. Traditionally, such requests often are denied by the medical community, which may cause an individual who has xenomelia to attempt risky self-amputation, or to injure the limb in a manner that makes subsequent amputation medically necessary.1
The name for this condition has evolved over the years, depending on the emphasis given to specific characteristics. It was once called apotemnophilia, meaning “love of amputation,” when the condition was believed to be a fetish involving sexual gratification derived from being an amputee.2,3 The term “body integrity identity disorder” (BIID) was introduced several decades later to incorporate the condition into a broader spectrum of accepted psychiatric pathologies, reasoning that it was the cause of a mismatch between objective and subjective body schema, similar to anorexia nervosa or body dysmorphic disorder.4,5 This name also served to draw parallels between this condition and gender identity disorder. However, unlike these other disorders, individuals with this condition have sufficient factual insight to know they appear “normal” to others. The newest term, xenomelia, was established to acknowledge the neurologic component of the condition after neuroimaging studies showed structural changes to the right parietal lobe in individuals who desired amputation of their left lower limb, thus linking the part of the brain that processes sensory input from the affected limb.6
While particular nuances in symptomatology were modified in formulating these older names, certain hallmark features of xenomelia have remained the same.7 The condition starts in early childhood, prior to puberty. Those who have it feel intense distress, and are resigned to the notion that nothing but amputation can alleviate their distress. Xenomelia is overwhelmingly more common in males than females. It is accompanied by nontraditional attitudes about disability, including admiration of amputees and complete apathy and disregard toward the impairment that amputation would cause.
While the data are insufficient to draw a definitive conclusion, the trend in the published literature suggests in xenomelia, the lower left leg is predominantly the limb implicated in the condition, in right-handed individuals.1
Here, we describe the case of a young man, Mr. H, with xenomelia who contacted us after reading about this condition in a review we recently published.1 He agreed to allow us to anonymously describe his history and symptoms so that clinicians can recognize and help other individuals with xenomelia. His history may also help stimulate exploration of etiological factors and novel treatment strategies for xenomelia, other than amputation of a healthy limb.
‘I have this limb that should not be’
Mr. H, age 31, is a white male of Eastern European descent who was born, raised, and resides in a major metropolitan area in the western United States. He is married, college-educated, and currently works as a computer programmer for a prominent technology company. During our conversation via telephone, he exhibits above-average intelligence, appears to be in euthymic mood, and speaks with broad affect. Mr. H displays no psychotic symptoms such as overt delusions, hallucinations, reality distortion, or response to internal stimuli. His past psychiatric history includes attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which was diagnosed at age 6 and treated with appropriate medication under the care of a psychiatrist until age 18, when Mr. H decided to discontinue treatment. He no longer endorses symptoms of ADHD. He has no chronic medical conditions other than season allergies, for which he sometimes takes antihistamines, and occasional exacerbation of sciatica, for which he takes an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Mr. H also has episodic insomnia, which he attributes to job-related stress and working odd hours. He was treated for meningitis as an infant, and underwent a bilateral myringotomy as a young child to treat recurrent ear infections. He has no other surgical history. He was raised in a middle-class Christian household that included both parents, who are still alive, still together, and have no significant psychiatric or medical history. He has no siblings.
Although he lives an ostensibly normal life, Mr. H suffers in silence and secrecy with xenomelia. According to him, there was never a time in his life when he didn’t feel that his left leg was “too long” and he was “walking on a stilt.” He says, “It takes a daily toll on my health and well-being.” He can clearly recall being 4 years old and playing games in which he would pretend to injure his left leg. He says, “When we played ‘make believe,’ the game would always end with something ‘happening’ to [my left leg].” He enjoys outdoor sports like snowboarding and mountain biking, and although he denies self-injurious behavior, he says in the event of an accident, he would prefer to land on his left leg, because it is the part of his body that he considers most “expendable.” One of his most vivid memories of childhood was going shopping with his parents and seeing an older man with only one leg standing on crutches in the parking lot outside the entrance. He remembers feeling “jealous” of this man.
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