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How To Estimate True Leg Length Discrepancy

June 28, 2017
Overview

The majority of people in the world actually have some degree of leg length discrepancy, up to 2cm. One study found that only around 1/4 of people have legs of equal lengths. LLD of greater than 2cm is relatively rare, however, and the greater the discrepancy, the greater the chances of having a clinical problem down the road. A limp generally begins when LLD exceeds 2cm and becomes extremely noticeable above 3cm. When patients with LLD develop an abnormal gait, one of the debilitating clinical features can be fatigue because of the relatively high amount of energy needed to walk in the new, inefficient way. Poliomyelitis, or polio, as it is more commonly known, used to account for around 1/3 of all cases of LLD, but due to the effectiveness of polio vaccines, it now represents a negligible cause of the condition. Functional LLD, described above, usually involves treatment focused on the hip, pelvis, and/or lower back, rather than the leg. If you have been diagnosed with functional LLD or pelvic obliquity, please ask your orthopaedic surgeon for more information about treatment of these conditions.Leg Length Discrepancy

Causes

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.

Symptoms

In addition to the distinctive walk of a person with leg length discrepancy, over time, other deformities may be noted, which help compensate for the condition. Toe walking on the short side to decrease the swaying during gait. The foot will supinate (high arch) on the shorter side. The foot will pronate (flattening of the arch) on the longer side. Excessive pronation leads to hypermobility and instability, resulting in metatarsus primus varus and associated unilateral juvenile hallux valgus (bunion) deformity.

Diagnosis

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

Non-surgical treatment can be effective. A shoe lift may be recommended if the leg length difference is less than 1 inch. More significant leg length discrepancies may require a surgical procedure. In children, surgical procedures are available to help make leg lengths more equal.

Leg Length

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Surgical Treatment

Your child will be given general anesthetic. We cut the bone and insert metal pins above and below the cut. A metal frame is attached to the pins to support the leg. Over weeks and months, the metal device is adjusted to gradually pull the bone apart to create space between the ends of the bones. New bone forms to fill in the space, extending the length of the bone. Once the lengthening process is completed and the bones have healed, your child will require one more short operation to remove the lengthening device. We will see your child regularly to monitor the leg and adjust the metal lengthening device. We may also refer your child to a physical therapist to ensure that he or she stays mobile and has full range of motion in the leg. Typically, it takes a month of healing for every centimeter that the leg is lengthened.

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