While many people have slight differences in the length of one leg compared to the other, a significant difference between the two legs can cause problems. Leg length discrepancies can disturb the way a person walks, how his or her spine lines up and strain hip joints.
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.
As patients develop LLD, they will naturally and even unknowingly attempt to compensate for the difference between their two legs by either bending the longer leg excessively or standing on the toes of the short leg. When walking, they are forced to step down on one side and thrust upwards on the other side, which leads to a gait pattern with an abnormal up and down motion. For many patients, especially adolescents, the appearance of their gait may be more personally troublesome than any symptoms that arise or any true functional deficiency. Over time, standing on one's toes can create a contracture at the ankle, in which the calf muscle becomes abnormally contracted, a condition that can help an LLD patient with walking, but may later require surgical repair. If substantial enough, LLD left untreated can contribute to other serious orthopaedic problems, such as degenerative arthritis, scoliosis, or lower back pain. However, with proper treatment, children with leg length discrepancy generally do quite well, without lingering functional or cosmetic deficiencies.
Limb length discrepancy can be measured by a physician during a physical examination and through X-rays. Usually, the physician measures the level of the hips when the child is standing barefoot. A series of measured wooden blocks may be placed under the short leg until the hips are level. If the physician believes a more precise measurement is needed, he or she may use X-rays. In growing children, a physician may repeat the physical examination and X-rays every six months to a year to see if the limb length discrepancy has increased or remained unchanged. A limb length discrepancy may be detected on a screening examination for curvature of the spine (scoliosis). But limb length discrepancy does not cause scoliosis.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatments for limb-length discrepancies and differences vary, depending on the cause and severity of the condition. At Gillette, our orthopedic surgeons are experts in typical and atypical growth and development. Our expertise lets us plan treatments that offer a lifetime of benefits. Treatments might include monitoring growth and development, providing noninvasive treatments or therapy, and providing a combination of orthopedic surgical procedures. To date, alternative treatments (such as chiropractic care or physical therapy) have not measurably altered the progression of or improved limb-length conditions. However, children often have physical or occupational therapy to address related conditions, such as muscle weakness or inflexibility, or to speed recovery following a surgical procedure. In cases where surgical treatment isn?t necessary, our orthopedists may monitor patients and plan noninvasive treatments, such as, occupational therapy, orthoses (braces) and shoe inserts, physical therapy, prostheses (artificial limbs).
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Limb deformity or leg length problems can be treated by applying an external frame to the leg. The frame consists of metal rings which go round the limb. The rings are held onto the body by wires and metal pins which pass through the skin and are anchored into the bone. During this operation, the bone is divided. Gradual adjustment of the frame results in creation of a new bone allowing a limb to be lengthened. The procedure involves the child having an anaesthetic. The child is normally in hospital for one week. The child and family are encouraged to clean pin sites around the limb. The adjustments of the frame (distractions) are performed by the child and/or family. The child is normally encouraged to walk on the operated limb and to actively exercise the joints above and below the frame. The child is normally reviewed on a weekly basis in clinic to monitor the correction of the deformity. The frame normally remains in place for 3 months up to one year depending on the condition which is being treated. The frame is normally removed under a general anaesthetic at the end of treatment.