Many children have one leg that is marginally longer than the other. In most cases, the difference is present at birth but may be too slight to be detected. More significant leg length differences (more than 2 cm) often become obvious as your child grows and begins to crawl and walk. We don?t always know what causes these discrepancies. A significant discrepancy can lead to more serious problems including arthritis and difficulty walking. However, with appropriate treatment, most children with this condition can participate in regular activities. Treatment options include heel lifts and, in more severe cases, surgery to either lengthen or shorten a leg.
There are many causes of leg length discrepancy. Some include, A broken leg bone may lead to a leg length discrepancy if it heals in a shortened position. This is more likely if the bone was broken in many pieces. It also is more likely if skin and muscle tissue around the bone were severely injured and exposed, as in an open fracture. Broken bones in children sometimes grow faster for several years after healing, causing the injured bone to become longer. A break in a child's bone through the growth center near the end of the bone may cause slower growth, resulting in a shorter leg. Bone infections that occur in children while they are growing may cause a significant leg length discrepancy. This is especially true if the infection happens in infancy. Inflammation of joints during growth may cause unequal leg length. One example is juvenile arthritis. Bone diseases may cause leg length discrepancy, as well. Examples are, Neurofibromatosis, Multiple hereditary exostoses, Ollier disease. Other causes include inflammation (arthritis) and neurologic conditions. Sometimes the cause of leg length discrepancy is unknown, particularly in cases involving underdevelopment of the inner or outer side of the leg, or partial overgrowth of one side of the body. These conditions are usually present at birth, but the leg length difference may be too small to be detected. As the child grows, the leg length discrepancy increases and becomes more noticeable. In underdevelopment, one of the two bones between the knee and the ankle is abnormally short. There also may be related foot or knee problems. Hemihypertrophy (one side too big) or hemiatrophy (one side too small) are rare leg length discrepancy conditions. In these conditions, the arm and leg on one side of the body are either longer or shorter than the arm and leg on the other side of the body. There may also be a difference between the two sides of the face. Sometimes no cause can be found. This is known as an "idiopathic" difference.
Many people walk around with LLD?s of up to 2 cm. and not even know it. However, discrepancies above 2 cm. becomes more noticeable, and a slight limp is present. But even up to 3 cm. a small lift compensates very well, and many patients are quite happy with this arrangement. Beyond 3 cm. however, the limp is quite pronounced, and medical care is often sought at that point. Walking with a short leg gait is not only unsightly, but increases energy expenditure during ambulation. It could also put more stress on the long leg, and causes functional scoliosis. Where the discrepancy is more severe, walking becomes grotesque or virtually impossible.
On standing examination one iliac crest may be higher/lower than the other. However a physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor will examine the LLD in prone or supine position and measure it, confirming the diagnosis of structural (or functional) LLD. The LLD should be measured using bony fixed points. X-Ray should be taken in a standing position. The osteopath, physiotherapist or chiropractor will look at femoral head & acetabulum, knee joints, ankle joints.
Non Surgical Treatment
You and your physician should discuss whether treatment is necessary. For minor LLDs in adults with no deformity, treatment may not be necessary. Because the risks may outweigh the benefits, surgical treatment to equalize leg lengths is usually not recommended if the difference is less than one inch. For these small differences, your physician may recommend a shoe lift. A lift fitted to the shoe can often improve your walking and running, as well as relieve back pain caused by LLD. Shoe lifts are inexpensive and can be removed if they are not effective. They do, however, add weight and stiffness to the shoe.
Surgical operations to equalize leg lengths include the following. Shortening the longer leg. This is usually done if growth is already complete, and the patient is tall enough that losing an inch is not a problem. Slowing or stopping the growth of the longer leg. Growth of the lower limbs take place mainly in the epiphyseal plates (growth plates) of the lower femur and upper tibia and fibula. Stapling the growth plates in a child for a few years theoretically will stop growth for the period, and when the staples were removed, growth was supposed to resume. This procedure was quite popular till it was found that the amount of growth retarded was not certain, and when the staples where removed, the bone failed to resume its growth. Hence epiphyseal stapling has now been abandoned for the more reliable Epiphyseodesis. By use of modern fluoroscopic equipment, the surgeon can visualize the growth plate, and by making small incisions and using multiple drillings, the growth plate of the lower femur and/or upper tibia and fibula can be ablated. Since growth is stopped permanently by this procedure, the timing of the operation is crucial. This is probably the most commonly done procedure for correcting leg length discrepancy. But there is one limitation. The maximum amount of discrepancy that can be corrected by Epiphyseodesis is 5 cm. Lengthening the short leg. Various procedures have been done over the years to effect this result. External fixation devices are usually needed to hold the bone that is being lengthened. In the past, the bone to be lengthened was cut, and using the external fixation device, the leg was stretched out gradually over weeks. A gap in the bone was thus created, and a second operation was needed to place a bone block in the gap for stability and induce healing as a graft. More recently, a new technique called callotasis is being use. The bone to be lengthened is not cut completely, only partially and called a corticotomy. The bone is then distracted over an external device (usually an Ilizarov or Orthofix apparatus) very slowly so that bone healing is proceeding as the lengthening is being done. This avoids the need for a second procedure to insert bone graft. The procedure involved in leg lengthening is complicated, and fraught with risks. Theoretically, there is no limit to how much lengthening one can obtain, although the more ambitious one is, the higher the complication rate.