I'm writing this post touched off by recent case in Florida, where a father is trying to veil his compulsive desire to have his 4-year-old son circumcised in a pseudo-medical allegation that the child is suffering some kind of problem.
According an earlier The Sun Sentinel article:
"[The father] has said he decided to pursue the circumcision in December 2013 when the boy was 3, after he said he noticed his son was urinating on his leg. The father on Friday said the boy's pediatrician had diagnosed a condition called phimosis, which prevents retraction of the foreskin."
Sharp readers who have been keeping up with this case should note a major inconsistency in this chronicle of events; namely that the father had invoked a legal contract where both parents had agreed to circumcise the child in question, which was signed by both the boy's mother and himself more than three years ago. This alone should demonstrate that the father had the intention of circumcising the boy three years ago, before the child would have been diagnosed with any "problem," not to mention his quip that he wanted to have his child circumcised "because it's the normal thing to do."
As it turns out, another physician who testified on behalf of the mother, and who had himself diagnosed the child directly, said that the child was just fine and that there was no medical reason why the boy had to be circumcised. This prompted the separate debate as to whether the circumcision of a healthy, non-consenting minor were "medically beneficial" or not, leading to the preceding judge to rule, according to his own analysis, that it was. (The judge is no doctor, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics refrains from issuing a recommendation for the circumcision of healthy children based on the current body of evidence.)
The judge ruled that the boy should be circumcised as outlined in the legal parental agreement signed three years ago, not because the boy had any pressing need to be circumcised, but because, based on his own (non-medical) judgement, he himself thought that circumcising a healthy, non-consenting 4-year-old was "medically beneficial."
So what was the father intending with his son-peeing-on-leg story?
I think a good look at the facts makes it obvious.
Those who have been keeping their eye on circumcision, circumcision advocates and their alibis, will no doubt be aware that the diagnosis of "phimosis" is far too commonly given as a pretext to circumcise an older child. Circumcision is also marketed as prophylaxis for "phimosis" by those who advocate or have to gain from performing the procedure.
But what is phimosis?
Who gets it?
What causes it?
How common is it?
When and if it is necessary, what treatment options are available?
When is a situation not "phimosis" but a normal stage in development?
I'm writing this blog post to answer these questions and more.
What is phimosis?The word "phimosis" originates from the Greek word phimos (φῑμός) which means "muzzle". "Phimosis" is a vague term used to describe any situation where, in intact males, the foreskin cannot be retracted to reveal the glans, or the head of the penis. The term may also refer to clitoral phimosis in women, whereby the clitoral hood cannot be retracted, limiting exposure of the glans clitoridis.
What are the normal stages of development?
Typically, when a baby boy is born, the prepuce is long with a narrow tip.(1)(2) Retraction is not possible in the majority of infants because the narrow tip will not pass over the glans penis. Moreover, it is normal for the inner mucosal surface of the prepuce to be fused with the underlying mucosal surface of the glans, or head of the penis,(1)(2)(4)(5) by means of a membrane called synechia, also known as the balano-preputial membrane or balano-preputial lamina,(1) further preventing retraction. This attachment forms early in fetal development and provides a protective cocoon for the delicate developing glans.(6) It is normal for the foreskin to be non-retractable in infancy and early childhood.(6)
Retraction of the Foreskin
In normal development, the foreskin usually separates from the glans and becomes retractable with age.(4) As the infant matures into a boy and the boy into a man, the tip of the prepuce becomes wider, and the shaft of the penis grows, making the tip of the prepuce appear shorter. The membrane that bonds the inner surface of the prepuce with the glans penis spontaneously disintegrates and releases the prepuce to separate from the glans. The prepuce spontaneously becomes retractable.
In order for retraction to occur, the foreskin must have separated from the glans and the opening of the foreskin must have widened to allow it to slip back over the glans. Throughout childhood and adolescence, there is a release of hormones. As hormone levels rise, the fiber-dense tissue of the prepuce is replaced with a more elastic tissue. A boy will begin to explore his genitals as he grows, and as time passes, the elastic tissue will allow the opening of the foreskin to widen. This can happen at any age but it is not common in young boys.
The amount of time it takes for a boy's foreskin to become fully retractable varies from boy to boy; this process can take many years for some boys, and yet minutes for others. In some boys, the foreskin may not be retractable until after puberty.(7)(8)(9) This is an entirely normal stage of development and should not be diagnosed as any kind of "problem."
When Does Retraction Happen?
According to the experience of doctors and researchers in cultures where circumcision is uncommon, retraction happens at varying ages, and a non-retractable foreskin rarely requires treatment. Observations from doctors in Denmark, and Japan and other countries indicate that spontaneous loosening usually occurs with increasing maturity.(7)(8)(9)(10)(11)(12)
Non-retractability is considered normal for males up to and including adolescence. The process whereby the foreskin and glans gradually separate may not be complete until the age of 17.(4) A Danish survey (2005) reported that average age of first foreskin retraction is 10.4 years.(13) Marques et al (2005) reported that 99% of boys can retract their foreskins by age 14.(12)(14)(15)(16) One may expect 50% of 10-year-old boys; 90% of 16-year-old boys; and 98-99% of 18 year-old males to have a fully retractable foreskin. Treatment is seldom necessary.
A 1999 study by Cold and Taylor shows that at 6 to 7 years, approximately 60% of the boys had natural adhesions. At 10-11 years, close to 50% of the boys still had adhesions. At 14-15, approximately only 10% of the boys had adhesions. As they approach the age of 17, only a very small percentage of boys will have adhesions. That means that, left uncircumcised, most boys will be able to retract their foreskin before they are 17 years old.
Foreskin Retraction as Observed in Children in Other Countries
Jakob Øster, a Danish physician who conducted school examinations, reported his findings on the examination of school-boys in Denmark, where circumcision is rare.(7) Øster (1968) found that the incidence of fusion of the foreskin with the glans penis steadily declines with increasing age and foreskin retractability increases with age.(7)
Kayaba et al. (1996) also investigated the development of foreskin retraction in boys from age 0 to age 15.5, and they also reported increasing retractability with increasing age. Kayaba et al. reported that about only 42% of boys aged 8-10 have fully retractile foreskin, but the percentage increases to 62.9% in boys aged 11-15.(8) Imamura (1997) reported that 77% of boys aged 11-15 had retractile foreskin.
Thorvaldsen and Meyhoff (2005) conducted a survey of 4000 young men in Denmark. They report that the mean age of first foreskin retraction is 10.4 years in Denmark.(13) Non-retractile foreskin is the more common condition until about 10-11 years of age.
Current medical literature indicates that the foreskin is non-retractable in the majority of males until they begin to approach puberty. Until a boy begins to reach sexual maturity, non-retractability of the foreskin is a normal part of growing up.
When is "phimosis" a problem?
Given the empirical facts stated above, it is already mistaken to assume that just because the foreskin cannot be retracted to reveal the head of the penis, a male has some sort of pathological condition. As evidenced by the facts given above, the great majority of male children who have anatomically correct genitals will have foreskins that cannot be retracted, and it is a mistake to assume that all children undergo this transitory "illness" where they can't retract their foreskins, akin to the mumps, measles or chicken pox. Girls do not begin to menstruate until the onset of puberty, and they are not considered to be suffering any sort of medical condition until then.
Non-retractability of the foreskin may pose a problem if it continues well past puberty. Typically the foreskin has dilated to allow retraction as a result of the release of hormones. In a small percentage of males, the production of these hormones is insufficient, and the foreskin fails to dilate, resulting in a condition known as "preputial stenosis," or, a narrow foreskin. This condition may make hygiene and sexual intercourse difficult, if not impossible, but not always. In older men that have bad hygiene habits and who smoke regularly, having a non-retractile foreskin can increase the chances of developing penile cancer.
There is another reason why the foreskin may not be retractable in a male, and that is because he has suffered an infection with balanitis xerotica obliterans, or BXO for short. In this case, the tip of the foreskin is scarred and indurated, and has the histological features of a pathological infection. The foreskin of a male who has suffered an infection with BXO will have developed a fibrotic ring, which makes retraction difficult or impossible. It is this pathologically induced non-retractability which can be correctly termed "phimosis." To differentiate normal stages of development, and even the physiological state of a foreskin which has failed to dilate as a result of lack of hormones, from pathologically-caused non-retractability, doctors have invented the term "true phimosis." It is non-retractability caused by pathological infection with BXO that can be considered an actual problem.
Can phimosis be cured?
It is estimated that 2% of males go their entire lives without their foreskins ever becoming retractable. How this condition can be treated will depend on what the actual problem is. The physiological condition where a foreskin has failed to dilate as the result of a lack of hormones, otherwise known as "preputial stenosis," tends to respond to steroid cream therapy, coupled with stretching exercises and/or stretching devices.
Non-retractability as a result of a BXO infection, however is different, as this is caused by a resulting fibrotic ring at the end of the foreskin, which is scarification that may or may not respond to steroid cream treatment or stretching exercises. It is non-retractability caused by BXO infection that can be genuinely considered a problem which may call for corrective surgery.
It should be noted that non-retractability of the foreskin as a result of BXO infection occurs in less than 1% of males. Additionally, it should be noted that even when a case of "true phimosis" may require surgical correction, it does not always entail a complete removal of the prepuce. There are procedures that can correct phimosis which can preserve the foreskin and its functions. Surgical methods range from the complete removal of the foreskin (circumcision) to more minor operations to relieve foreskin tightness, such as a "dorsal slit" (AKA "superincision") a "ventral slit" (AKA "subterincision") and "preputioplasty."
If treatment should be necessary, it should not be done until after puberty and the male can weigh the therapeutic options and give informed consent.(9)
How should a genuine case of phimosis be diagnosed?
In order to correctly determine that there is a real problem occurring in a male, a learned doctor will begin by ruling a few things out.
If, for example, a child hasn't reached puberty yet, and because non-retractability is common for this age group, the doctor should consider that the child may be experiencing normal stages of development.
If, for example, a child hasn't reached puberty yet, but he was able retract his foreskin previously, it may be probable that the child may have experienced an infection with BXO.
If, for example, an adult male who has already gone through puberty still has a non-retractile foreskin, the doctor needs to determine if this is a physiological problem caused by a lack of hormones (preputial stenosis), or if it is a pathological problem as a result of infection with BXO (AKA "true phimosis").
Because non-retractibility of the foreskin can be both a normal stage of development, and a pathological problem, it can be very easy for doctors to make an inadvertent, or even deliberate misdiagnosis. Particularly in countries like the United States, where circumcision is a perceived norm, and doctors may not be educated in the differences between normal stages of development and phimosis as a pathological condition, it can be very easy for doctors to say that a child is suffering a condition that may require surgical correction, where in fact, there is actually none.
For a correct diagnosis, a doctor who is knowledgeable about the difference between normal stages of development and non-retractability caused by BXO infection will correctly have the male analyzed for signs of lesions of BXO. Then, and only then, can a doctor properly make the diagnosis that a male child is suffering a medical problem, and that the child may need surgery to correct the problem.
Because non-retractability in adult males is rare, and "true phimosis" (pathologically induced non-retractability) even more rare, there is a high probability that a diagnosis for "phimosis" is actually false, especially in children, where non-retractability of the foreskin is a part of normal development.
Iatrogenically Induced Problems
Problems with the retraction of the foreskin may either be the result of a lack of hormones, the result of an infection with BXO, or, they could be iatrogenically induced. (E.g. actually caused by the doctor himself.)
It has been widely recognized by the medical profession for most of the 20th century that normal male infants have foreskins which are incompletely separated from the epithelium of the glans.(17) The foreskin cannot be retracted without tearing the fusion and adhesions which are commonly present between the inner foreskin and the glans penis in normal stages of development.
In English-language medicine, there is an absence of proper knowledge of the foreskin and its development in the medical curriculum. According to McGregor et al (2005), physicians often have difficulties distinguishing between this normal, natural state of the penis in neonates and pre-pubecent boys and pathological phimosis caused by BXO.(17)(18) Spilsbury et al (2003) suggest that doctors may be likely to confuse the aforementioned conditions with pathological phimosis.(19)
Unaware of the harmless nature of the normal, natural state of the penis in neonates, and the presence of adhesions in infants and pre-pubecent boys, and unaware that this can be damaging, doctors have been known to forcibly attempt to retract the foreskin in healthy, developing children, just to see if it retracts, tearing natural adhesions and/or ripping the foreskin in the process. Furthermore, they have been known to erroneously instruct parents that a child's foreskin needs to be retracted in order to "clean under it," arguing that they will develop infections otherwise.(20)
Premature, forcible retraction of the foreskin is an extremely painful, serious, and potentially permanent injury(17). It can damage the glans and mucous inner tissue of the foreskin. Forcibly retracting a child could result in iatrogenically induced phimosis, where the raw, open wounds of ripped adhesions could heal and fuse together, or where a forcibly dilated foreskin could develop scarification, resulting in a fibrotic ring similar to the one caused by BXO infection. Additionally, this can result in a complication known as "paraphimosis," where the narrow foreskin strangles the penis trapped behind an enlarged glans, thereby necessitating surgical intervention.
It must be noted here that these problems rarely present themselves in countries where circumcision is rare or not practiced. There is simply no epidemic of foreskin problems in countries where male children aren't circumcised. These problems tend to suspiciously present themselves in countries where circumcision is common, and diagnosed by doctors who happen to specialize in child circumcision. Children may have been circumcised to correct "problems" that either never existed, or whom were given their problems by ignorant doctors to begin with.
It is harmful and misleading to tell parents that a child's foreskin must be forcibly retracted. In children whose foreskins are still adhered to the glans, or where the foreskin has not dilated to allow the glans, this can be a harrowing experience. Forcibly retracting a child's foreskin "to clean under it" is the equivalent of cleaning out a girl's vagina with a pipe cleaner. Surely, a doctor who would instruct parents to clean out their child's vagina would be dismissed as a lunatic. Medical associations advise not to forcibly retract the foreskin of an infant, as this interferes with normal penile development, and may result in scarring or injury.(21)(22).
Camille et al (2002), in their guidance for parents, state that "[t]he foreskin should never be forcibly retracted, as this can cause pain and bleeding and may result in scarring and trouble with natural retraction."(23)
Simpson & Barraclough (1998) state that "[n]o attempt should be made to retract a foreskin in a child unless significant separation of the subpreputial adhesions has occurred. Failure to observe this basic rule may result in tearing with subsequent fibrosis and consequent [iatrogenically induced] phimosis. ..."(24)
The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions parents not to retract their son's foreskin, but suggest that once he reaches puberty, he should retract and gently wash with soap and water.(25) The Royal Australasian College of Physician as well as the Canadian Paediatric Society emphasize that the infant foreskin should be left alone and requires no special care.(26)
The facts, which are well-documented in medical literature, speak for themselves.
A foreskin that is adhered to the glans and/or will not retract is a normal stage of development in all healthy male children in infancy. The belief that a foreskin that is "tight" and will not retract is a problem in male infants implies that all human male children are born with some kind of birth defect, congenital deformity or genetic anomaly akin to a 6th finger or a cleft.
In the great majority of males, the foreskin separates from the glans and becomes retractable as they approach puberty, without the aid of medical or surgical intervention.
A foreskin that will not retract in older males is rare, and may or may not be a pathological problem. In order to determine the cause of a non-retractile foreskin, a knowledgeable doctor who understands anatomically correct male genitals, the normal stages of development of healthy males, and true pathological problems of male genitalia, must run the correct analyses in order to detect the presence or absence of pathological lesions; then, and only then, can the doctor determine whether the problem can be remedied with conventional medicine or by means of surgical correction.
Even when a genuine case of phimosis that necessitates surgical intervention presents itself, circumcision, or the full excision of the foreskin is not always called for; there are surgical interventions which will correct phimosis while preserving the foreskin and its functions.
Intervention to hasten the retraction of the foreskin in otherwise healthy, prepubescent males may actually cause iatrogenically induced problems. The forced retraction of the foreskin may itself cause non-retractability. Forcibly dilating the foreskin causes scar tissue to form, which may result in a fibrotic ring at the end of the foreskin. Breaking the natural adhesions which occur between the glans and the foreskin during normal stages of development may cause new adhesions to form between the glans and the foreskin, becoming fused as the raw wounds of the broken adhesions heal together. Forcibly pulling back naturally narrow foreskin over the glans in otherwise healthy children may result in paraphimosis, where the narrow foreskin catches behind the glans, preventing the foreskin from returning to its neutral position covering the glans, ironically necessitating the need for surgical intervention.
Efforts need to be made to bring English-language curriculum on the foreskin, the natural stages of development and genital pathology up to date. Doctors need to educate themselves and stop dispensing erroneous and dangerous advice to parents. They need to learn to differentiate between the normal stages of development in human males, and actual pathological phimosis.
So what's with the father's son-peeing-on-leg story?
And what does this have anything to do with "phimosis?"
Where is peeing on one's leg listed as a symptom for phimosis and not merely a case of childhood incontinence?
Is Chase's father genuinely concerned for the well-being of his son? Are Chase's father's intentions truly in his son's best interest? Or only his own?
How was the conclusion that this boy was suffering any kind of medical condition determined?
How did the doctors determine that he was suffering a genuine case of phimosis, and was not merely exhibiting the stages of normal development?
Can we assume good faith and say that the diagnosis of "phimosis" given by the doctors on the father's side was born out of genuine ignorance?
Or did they deliberately raise false testimony on the father's behalf?
I surmise that the father hoped that by producing some sort of medical "problem," he would secure permission from the judge to allow for a "medically indicated" circumcision. That, or he was intending to secure funds from Florida Medicaid, which states specifically that funds are to be used for medically indicated treatment or surgery.
Doctors who diagnose "phimosis" in a perfectly healthy child are either uneducated when it comes to the foreskin and natural stages of development, or may in fact be committing medical fraud, deliberately inventing a misdiagnosis in order to justify surgery in a healthy, non-consenting minor, and/or collecting medicaid funds intended for actually medically necessary surgery.
Intactivists will be watching what happens very closely, and we will work for this case to be thoroughly investigated. Reaping profit from performing non-medical surgery on healthy, non-consenting individuals constitutes medical fraud. In children, it constitutes child abuse. This is to be compounded with the fact that the consent forms for this elective, non-medical surgery were signed by a mother under duress. Whoever decides to circumcise this boy will have heavy litigation on his hands.
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2. Spence J. On Circumcision. Lancet 1964;2:902.
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4. Øster J. Further fate of the foreskin: incidence of preputial adhesions, phimosis, and smegma among Danish schoolboys. Arch Dis Child 1968;43:200-3.
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6. Wright J.E. (February 1994). "Further to 'the further fate of the foreskin'". The Medical Journal of Australia 160 (3): 134–5. PMID 8295581. http://www.cirp.org/library/normal/wright2/
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10. Celsus. De medicina, vol 3. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p 422
11. Celsus. De medicina, 6.18.2. In: Spencer WG (ed and trans) (1938) Celsus. De medicina, vol 2. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, p 269
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21. "Care of the Uncircumcised Penis". Guide for parents. American Academy of Pediatrics. September 2007. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/bathing-skin-care/Pages/Care-for-an-Uncircumcised-Penis.aspx.
22. "Caring for an uncircumcised penis". Information for parents. Canadian Paediatric Society. July 2012. http://www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/circumcision.
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25. American Academy of Pediatrics: Care of the uncircumcised penis, 2007
26. Royal Australasian College of Physicians. (2010) Circumcision of Infant Males.