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A cleft lip is a congenital malformation in which the upper lip is partially split. This condition, more properly known as cheiloschisis, can cause the lip to be split all the way up to the nostrils on either or both sides of the lip, or it can cause more mild deformities, which may be as subtle as small dents in the lip. It sometimes appears in combination with a cleft palate, a condition in which the roof of the mouth is not completely joined.
Cleft lips are among the most common of birth defects around the world, and they are often treated within days or months of birth. In the developed world, where such surgery is routine, the sight of an adult with a cleft lip or palate is extremely rare. In developing nations, people may not be able to access medical treatment for cleft lips or palates, leading to physical, social, and emotional problems. Several volunteer medical organizations provide free cleft lip and palate procedures to residents of developing nations as a charity.
The cause of lip clefting is not understood. Normally, the left and the palate fuse into solid pieces during fetal development, as indicated by the groove above the lip known as the philtrum where these tissues meet, but in some cases, they don't. The lack of fusing may be caused by a deficiency of tissue in the area, by substances ingested by the mother, or by freak happenstance. Parents who have a child with a cleft lip or palate certainly shouldn't beat themselves up over it, as the condition could not have been prevented in most cases.
This birth defect can sometimes be seen on ultrasound scans, and if it is not identified at this stage, it will be recognized at birth. Parents are given the option of treating the cleft lip, or leaving it untreated. Most parents opt for treatment to reduce potential health problems such as difficulty eating, increased risk of cavities, and increased occurrence of ear infections. In addition, cleft lip surgery can spare a child from mockery, teasing, or other unkind behavior from people who are disturbed by the sight of a cleft lip.
Fixing a cleft lip can be accomplished with plastic surgery. A small scar forms after the surgery, but slowly disappears with age. Cleft palates can be repaired surgically, or with the use of orthodontic devices which encourage the palate to fuse together. The earlier the condition is treated, the less extreme the scarring will be. The patient may also be more socially comfortable, and surgery when a child is pre-verbal will prevent speech defects associated with cleft lips and palates.
A charity called Operation Smile helps cleft palate kids in third world countries get surgery to repair the clefts. They do a lot of great work in the world. This charity also does work for patients with facial deformities in general, not just cleft palates.
They also travel with ear, nose and throat specialists, since cleft lip and cleft palate almost invariably come with ear and sinus problems.
A lot of people have been helped because these surgeons donate their skills and their time.
I had a good friend in elementary school who had a cleft lip and palate. The surgery was not nearly as advanced then, and you could tell she had something going on with her nose and lip. It wasn't terribly disfiguring, but it was noticeable.
She had her last surgery in her teens to pack the cleft palate with bone to help it fuse together. Ten years after the surgery, she would still spit out a shard of bone that had worked its way out from the cleft.