There are many different conditions in childhood and adult life that can lead to deformity of a limb or difference in leg lengths. Treatment for these conditions depends on the condition being treated, the age of the child and the amount of deformity or shortening. Generally, only a final difference of leg length of 2cm or more requires surgical treatment. An outline of treatment options is given below.
The causes of LLD are many, including a previous injury, bone infection, bone diseases (dysplasias), inflammation (arthritis) and neurologic conditions. Previously broken bones may cause LLD by healing in a shortened position, especially if the bone was broken in many pieces (comminuted) or if skin and muscle tissue around the bone were severely injured and exposed (open fracture). Broken bones in children sometimes grow faster for several years after healing, causing the injured bone to become longer. Also, a break in a child?s bone through a growth center (located near the ends of the bone) may cause slower growth, resulting in a shorter extremity. Bone infections that occur in children while they are growing may cause a significant LLD, especially during infancy. Bone diseases may cause LLD, as well; examples are neurofibromatosis, multiple hereditary exostoses and Ollier disease. Inflammation of joints during growth may cause unequal extremity length. One example is juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis, the joint degeneration that occurs in adults, very rarely causes a significant LLD.
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.
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
Treatment of leg length inequality involves many different approaches, which vary among osteopaths, physiotherapist and chiropractor and whether the LLD is functional or structural. Thus is a combination of myofascial release (massage) & stretching of shortened muscles. Manipulation or mobilization of the spine, sacro-iliac joint (SIJ), hip, knee, foot. Orthotics, shoe lifts can be used to treat discrepancies from two to six cm (usually up to 1 cm can be inserted in the shoe. For larger leg length inequalities, the shoe must be built up. This needs to be done for every shoe worn, thus limiting the type of shoe that the patient can wear). Surgery (epiphysiodesis, epiphyseal stapling,bone resection).
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The bone is lengthened by surgically applying an external fixation device to the leg. 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 the frame creates tension when the patient or family member turns its dial. This is done several times each day. The lengthening process begins approximately five to 10 days after surgery. The bone may lengthen 1 millimeter per day, or approximately 1 inch per month. Lengthening may be slower in a bone that was previously injured. It may also be slower if the leg was operated on before. Bones in patients with potential blood vessel abnormalities, such as cigarette smokers, may also need to be lengthened more slowly. The external fixator is worn until the bone is strong enough to support the patient safely. This usually takes about three months for each inch. Factors such as age, health, smoking and participation in rehabilitation can affect the amount of time needed.