A difference in the length of your lower and/or upper legs is called a leg length discrepancy. This is fairly common, actually. One study reported that 32 percent of 600 individuals had a difference in their leg lengths ranging from one-fifth to three-fifths of an inch. A person might not even notice if one leg is slightly longer than the other. However, if the difference is not minimal, treatment may be required.
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.
The doctor carefully examines the child. He or she checks to be sure the legs are actually different lengths. This is because problems with the hip (such as a loose joint) or back (scoliosis) can make the child appear to have one shorter leg, even though the legs are the same length. An X-ray of the child?s legs is taken. During the X-ray, a long ruler is put in the image so an accurate measurement of each leg bone can be taken. If an underlying cause of the discrepancy is suspected, tests are done to rule it out.
Non Surgical Treatment
You and your physician should discuss whether treatment is necessary. For minor LLDs in adults with no deformity, treatment may not be necessary. Because the risks may outweigh the benefits, surgical treatment to equalize leg lengths is usually not recommended if the difference is less than one inch. For these small differences, your physician may recommend a shoe lift. A lift fitted to the shoe can often improve your walking and running, as well as relieve back pain caused by LLD. Shoe lifts are inexpensive and can be removed if they are not effective. They do, however, add weight and stiffness to the shoe.
The type of surgery depends on the type of problem. Outpatient procedures may be used to alter the growth of the limb. This is often done through small incisions. If an outpatient procedure is done, your child can continue with most regular activities. Other times, surgery may be very involved and require the use of an external device that is attached to the limb with pins and wires. This device may be left on for months to correct the deformity or lengthen the leg. If this type of surgery is required, your child will be making weekly visits to Cincinnati Children's.