Differences between lengths of the two upper extremities (upper and/or lower arms) or between the lengths of the two lower extremities (upper and/or lower legs) are called limb length discrepancy (LLD). A limb length discrepancy may be due to a normal variation that we all have between the two sides of our bodies, or it may be due to other causes. Some differences are so common that they are normal and need no treatment. For example, one study reported that 32 percent of 600 military recruits had a 5mm to 15mm (approximately 1/5 to 3/5 inch) difference between the lengths of their two lower extremities; this is a normal variation. Greater differences may need treatment because a discrepancy can affect a patient?s well being and quality of life.
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.
LLD do not have any pain or discomfort directly associated with the difference of one leg over the other leg. However, LLD will place stress on joints throughout the skeletal structure of the body and create discomfort as a byproduct of the LLD. Just as it is normal for your feet to vary slightly in size, a mild difference in leg length is normal, too. A more pronounced LLD, however, can create abnormalities when walking or running and adversely affect healthy balance and posture. Symptoms include a slight limp. Walking can even become stressful, requiring more effort and energy. Sometimes knee pain, hip pain and lower back pain develop. Foot mechanics are also affected causing a variety of complications in the foot, not the least, over pronating, metatarsalgia, bunions, hammer toes, instep pain, posterior tibial tendonitis, and many more.
Leg length discrepancy may be diagnosed during infancy or later in childhood, depending on the cause. Conditions such as hemihypertrophy or hemiatrophy are often diagnosed following standard newborn or infant examinations by a pediatrician, or anatomical asymmetries may be noticed by a child's parents. For young children with hemihypertophy as the cause of their LLD, it is important that they receive an abdominal ultrasound of the kidneys to insure that Wilm's tumor, which can lead to hypertrophy in the leg on the same side, is not present. In older children, LLD is frequently first suspected due to the emergence of a progressive limp, warranting a referral to a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon. The standard workup for LLD is a thorough physical examination, including a series of measurements of the different portions of the lower extremities with the child in various positions, such as sitting and standing. The orthopaedic surgeon will observe the child while walking and performing other simple movements or tasks, such as stepping onto a block. In addition, a number of x-rays of the legs will be taken, so as to make a definitive diagnosis and to assist with identification of the possible etiology (cause) of LLD. Orthopaedic surgeons will compare x-rays of the two legs to the child's age, so as to assess his/her skeletal age and to obtain a baseline for the possibility of excessive growth rate as a cause. A growth chart, which compares leg length to skeletal age, is a simple but essential tool used over time to track the progress of the condition, both before and after treatment. Occasionally, a CT scan or MRI is required to further investigate suspected causes or to get more sophisticated radiological pictures of bone or soft tissue.
Non Surgical Treatment
For minor limb length discrepancy in patients 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 1 inch. For these small differences, the physician may recommend a shoe lift. A lift fitted to the shoe can often improve walking and running, as well as relieve any back pain that may be caused by the limb length discrepancy. Shoe lifts are inexpensive and can be removed if they are not effective.
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Bone growth restriction (epiphysiodesis) The objective of this surgical procedure is to slow down growth in the longer leg. During surgery, doctors alter the growth plate of the bone in the longer leg by inserting a small plate or staples. This slows down growth, allowing the shorter leg to catch up over time. Your child may spend a night in the hospital after this procedure or go home the same day. Doctors may place a knee brace on the leg for a few days. It typically takes 2 to 3 months for the leg to heal completely. An alternative approach involves lengthening the shorter bone. We are more likely to recommend this approach if your child is on the short side of the height spectrum.