Leg length difference (LLD) is primarily when the hips are not level, causing a limp from side to side. Most practitioners divide LLD into anatomical or functional. Anatomical is when there is a true difference in the length of the tibia/fibula or the femur bone, or both. While functional LLD are either the shortening or lengthening of a limb, secondary to joint contracture or muscle imbalances.
Limb-length conditions can result from congenital disorders of the bones, muscles or joints, disuse or overuse of the bones, muscles or joints caused by illness or disease, diseases, such as bone cancer, Issues of the spine, shoulder or hip, traumatic injuries, such as severe fractures that damage growth plates.
The most common symptom of all forms of LLD is chronic backache. In structural LLD the sufferer may also experience arthritis within the knee and hip are, flank pain, plantar fasciitis and metatarsalgia all on the side that is longer. Functional LLD sufferers will see similar conditions on the shorter side.
Leg length discrepancy may be diagnosed during infancy or later in childhood, depending on the cause. Conditions such as hemihypertrophy or hemiatrophy are often diagnosed following standard newborn or infant examinations by a pediatrician, or anatomical asymmetries may be noticed by a child's parents. For young children with hemihypertophy as the cause of their LLD, it is important that they receive an abdominal ultrasound of the kidneys to insure that Wilm's tumor, which can lead to hypertrophy in the leg on the same side, is not present. In older children, LLD is frequently first suspected due to the emergence of a progressive limp, warranting a referral to a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon. The standard workup for LLD is a thorough physical examination, including a series of measurements of the different portions of the lower extremities with the child in various positions, such as sitting and standing. The orthopaedic surgeon will observe the child while walking and performing other simple movements or tasks, such as stepping onto a block. In addition, a number of x-rays of the legs will be taken, so as to make a definitive diagnosis and to assist with identification of the possible etiology (cause) of LLD. Orthopaedic surgeons will compare x-rays of the two legs to the child's age, so as to assess his/her skeletal age and to obtain a baseline for the possibility of excessive growth rate as a cause. A growth chart, which compares leg length to skeletal age, is a simple but essential tool used over time to track the progress of the condition, both before and after treatment. Occasionally, a CT scan or MRI is required to further investigate suspected causes or to get more sophisticated radiological pictures of bone or soft tissue.
Non Surgical Treatment
The way in which we would treat a LLD would depend on whether we have an anatomical or functional difference. To determine which one is causing the LLD you will need to get your legs measured. This is the easiest way to determine if it is anatomical or functional. With a functional LLD we must first determine the cause and treat the cause. Should the cause be one that is not correctable then we may need to treat the LLD as if it were an anatomical or may have to treat the opposite leg to improve one's gait. As for the anatomical LLD, we may start off with a heel lift only in the shoe and follow up to see if we will need to put the lift full sole on the bottom of the shoe. This is determined by the affects that a heel lift in one shoe may have on that knee. Should the LLD be more than 1/4 inch we usually recommend starting between 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch less than the actual amount and let the body adjust to the change and then raise up to the measured amount later.
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Surgical lengthening of the shorter extremity (upper or lower) is another treatment option. The bone is lengthened by surgically applying an external fixator to the extremity in the operating room. The external fixator, a scaffold-like frame, is connected to the bone with wires, pins or both. A small crack is made in the bone and tension is created by the frame when it is "distracted" by the patient or family member who turns an affixed dial several times daily. The lengthening process begins approximately five to ten days after surgery. The bone may lengthen one millimeter per day, or approximately one inch per month. Lengthening may be slower in adults overall and in a bone that has been previously injured or undergone prior surgery. Bones in patients with potential blood vessel abnormalities (i.e., cigarette smokers) may also lengthen more slowly. The external fixator is worn until the bone is strong enough to support the patient safely, approximately three months per inch of lengthening. This may vary, however, due to factors such as age, health, smoking, participation in rehabilitation, etc. Risks of this procedure include infection at the site of wires and pins, stiffness of the adjacent joints and slight over or under correction of the bone?s length. Lengthening requires regular follow up visits to the physician?s office, meticulous hygiene of the pins and wires, diligent adjustment of the frame several times daily and rehabilitation as prescribed by your physician.