Leg length discrepancy is the difference in lengths of an individual?s legs. This difference may be anatomical or may be due to scoliosis, trauma/injury, arthritis, overpronation (collapse) of one foot, bowing of one leg or unequal bowing, surgery (hip or knee replacement), pelvic tilting or ageing. The difference can also be functional caused by differing forces of the soft tissues, such as weakness in muscle tissue on one side, or a weakness/tightness in joint tissue. A difference in leg lengths also results when running on indoor banked tracks, beaches and banked streets and side walks (for drainage). Many people have a measurable difference in their leg lengths which is compensated for by their bodies. As we age this compensation does not work as well. An x-ray and physical measurements will define the discrepancy and the adjustment needed.
A number of causes may lead to leg length discrepancy in children. Differences in leg length frequently follow fractures in the lower extremities in children due to over or under stimulation of the growth plates in the broken leg. Leg length discrepancy may also be caused by a congenital abnormality associated with a condition called hemihypertrophy. Or it may result from neuromuscular diseases such as polio and cerebral palsy. Many times, no cause can be identified. A small leg length discrepancy of a quarter of an inch or less is quite common in the general population and of no clinical significance. Larger leg length discrepancies become more significant. The long-term consequences of a short leg may include knee pain, back pain, and abnormal gait or limp.
Back pain along with pain in the foot, knee, leg and hip on one side of the body are the main complaints. There may also be limping or head bop down on the short side or uneven arm swinging. The knee bend, hip or shoulder may be down on one side, and there may be uneven wear to the soles of shoes (usually more on the longer side).
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
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.
Large leg length inequalities can be treated by staged lengthenings or by simultaneous ipsilateral femoral and tibial lengthenings. Additionally, lengthenings can be combined with appropriately timed epiphysiodesis in an effort to produce leg length equality. Staged lengthenings are often used for congenital deficiencies such as fibular hemimelia, in which 15 cm or more may be needed to produce leg length equality. We typically plan for the final lengthening to be completed by age 13 or 14 years, and allow at least 3 years between lengthenings. Lengthening of both the tibia and femur simultaneously requires aggressive therapy and treatment of soft tissue contractures. Curran et al reported the need for surgical release of soft tissue contractures in 3 of 8 patients treated with simultaneous ipsilateral femoral and tibial lengthenings. Lengthening over an IM nail can be done in an effort to decrease the amount of time the fixator needs to be worn and to prevent angular malalignment. This technique requires that the patient be skeletally mature and it carries a higher risk of osteomyelitis (up to 15%). Additionally, if premature consolidation occurs, a repeat corticotomy is more difficult.