The majority of people in the world actually have some degree of leg length discrepancy, up to 2cm. One study found that only around 1/4 of people have legs of equal lengths. LLD of greater than 2cm is relatively rare, however, and the greater the discrepancy, the greater the chances of having a clinical problem down the road. A limp generally begins when LLD exceeds 2cm and becomes extremely noticeable above 3cm. When patients with LLD develop an abnormal gait, one of the debilitating clinical features can be fatigue because of the relatively high amount of energy needed to walk in the new, inefficient way. Poliomyelitis, or polio, as it is more commonly known, used to account for around 1/3 of all cases of LLD, but due to the effectiveness of polio vaccines, it now represents a negligible cause of the condition. Functional LLD, described above, usually involves treatment focused on the hip, pelvis, and/or lower back, rather than the leg. If you have been diagnosed with functional LLD or pelvic obliquity, please ask your orthopaedic surgeon for more information about treatment of these conditions.
LLDs are very common. Sometimes the cause isn?t known. But the known causes of LLD in children include, injury or infection that slows growth of one leg bone. Injury to the growth plate (a soft part of a long bone that allows the bone to grow). Growth plate injury can slow bone growth in that leg. Fracture to a leg bone that causes overgrowth of the bone as it heals. A congenital (present at birth) problem (one whole side of the child?s body may be larger than the other side). Conditions that affect muscles and nerves, such as polio.
Children whose limbs vary in length often experience difficulty using their arms or legs. They might have difficulty walking or using both arms to engage in everyday activities.
Asymmetry is a clue that a LLD is present. The center of gravity will shift to the short limb side and patients will try to compensate, displaying indications such as pelvic tilt, lumbar scoliosis, knee flexion, or unilateral foot pronation. Asking simple questions such as, "Do you favor one leg over the other?" or, "Do you find it uncomfortable to stand?" may also provide some valuable information. Performing a gait analysis will yield some clues as to how the patient compensates during ambulation. Using plantar pressure plates can indicate load pressure differences between the feet. It is helpful if the gait analysis can be video-recorded and played back in slow motion to catch the subtle aspects of movement.
Non Surgical Treatment
The key to treatment of LLD in a child is to predict what the discrepancy is at maturity. If it is predicted to be less than 2 cm., no treatment is needed. Limb length discrepancies of up to 2 or 2.5 cm. can be compensated very well with a lift in the shoe. Beyond 2.5 cm., it becomes increasingly difficult to compensate with a left in the insole. Building up the shoe becomes uncosmetic and cumbersome, and some other way of compensating for the discrepancy becomes necessary. The treatment of LLD is long-term treatment, and involves the physician and patient?s family working together as a team. The family needs to weigh the various options available. If leg lengthening is decided on, the family needs to understand the commitment necessary to see it through. The treatment takes 6 months to a year for completion, and complications can happen. But when it works, the results are gratifying.
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.