People with leg length discrepancy, when one leg is longer than the other, usually have a waddling-type gait where the hips seem to move up and down during walking as the body tries to compensate for the inequality. There are two types of leg length discrepancy. The first type of leg length discrepancy involves a structural defect, where one bone is longer or shorter than the corresponding bone of the other limb. This can occur within the femur (upper leg bone) or the tibia and fibular (lower leg bones). Functional leg length discrepancy results from altered mechanics due to a malalignment in the spine or lower extremity.
Some children are born with absence or underdeveloped bones in the lower limbs e.g., congenital hemimelia. Others have a condition called hemihypertrophy that causes one side of the body to grow faster than the other. Sometimes, increased blood flow to one limb (as in a hemangioma or blood vessel tumor) stimulates growth to the limb. In other cases, injury or infection involving the epiphyseal plate (growth plate) of the femur or tibia inhibits or stops altogether the growth of the bone. Fractures healing in an overlapped position, even if the epiphyseal plate is not involved, can also cause limb length discrepancy. Neuromuscular problems like polio can also cause profound discrepancies, but thankfully, uncommon. Lastly, Wilms? tumor of the kidney in a child can cause hypertrophy of the lower limb on the same side. It is therefore important in a young child with hemihypertrophy to have an abdominal ultrasound exam done to rule out Wilms? tumor. It is important to distinguish true leg length discrepancy from apparent leg length discrepancy. Apparent discrepancy is due to an instability of the hip, that allows the proximal femur to migrate proximally, or due to an adduction or abduction contracture of the hip that causes pelvic obliquity, so that one hip is higher than the other. When the patient stands, it gives the impression of leg length discrepancy, when the problem is actually in the hip.
The effects of limb length discrepancy vary from patient to patient, depending on the cause and size of the difference. Differences of 3 1/2 percent to 4 percent of the total length of the leg (about 4 cm or 1 2/3 inches in an average adult) may cause noticeable abnormalities when walking. These differences may require the patient to exert more effort to walk. There is controversy about the effect of limb length discrepancy on back pain. Some studies show that people with a limb length discrepancy have a greater incidence of low back pain and an increased susceptibility to injuries. Other studies do not support this finding.
Infants, children or adolescents suspected of having a limb-length condition should receive an evaluation at the first sign of difficulty in using their arms or legs. In many cases, signs are subtle and only noticeable in certain situations, such as when buying clothing or playing sports. Proper initial assessments by qualified pediatric orthopedic providers can reduce the likelihood of long-term complications and increase the likelihood that less invasive management will be effective. In most cases, very mild limb length discrepancies require no formal treatment at all.
Non Surgical Treatment
A personalized approach to leg length discrepancy treatment works best for each patient. Your child's doctor will consider many factors when deciding on a course of treatment for this condition. Such factors can include your child's age, extent of the leg length discrepancy, medical history, how your child tolerates certain treatments and procedures, your child's health and prognosis, growth rate, and parental preferences. There is no cookie cutter treatment for each child, or even each centimeter of leg difference. Once all of these factors have been carefully considered, your child's physician will come up with an appropriate course of care. In situations of a very small leg length discrepancy, no treatment, only periodic medical evaluation, may be necessary.
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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.