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.
Common causes include bone infection, bone diseases, previous injuries, or broken bones. Other causes may include birth defects, arthritis where there is a loss of articular surface, or neurological conditions.
Many people walk around with LLD?s of up to 2 cm. and not even know it. However, discrepancies above 2 cm. becomes more noticeable, and a slight limp is present. But even up to 3 cm. a small lift compensates very well, and many patients are quite happy with this arrangement. Beyond 3 cm. however, the limp is quite pronounced, and medical care is often sought at that point. Walking with a short leg gait is not only unsightly, but increases energy expenditure during ambulation. It could also put more stress on the long leg, and causes functional scoliosis. Where the discrepancy is more severe, walking becomes grotesque or virtually impossible.
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
The key to treatment of LLD in a child is to predict what the discrepancy is at maturity. If it is predicted to be less than 2 cm., no treatment is needed. Limb length discrepancies of up to 2 or 2.5 cm. can be compensated very well with a lift in the shoe. Beyond 2.5 cm., it becomes increasingly difficult to compensate with a left in the insole. Building up the shoe becomes uncosmetic and cumbersome, and some other way of compensating for the discrepancy becomes necessary. The treatment of LLD is long-term treatment, and involves the physician and patient?s family working together as a team. The family needs to weigh the various options available. If leg lengthening is decided on, the family needs to understand the commitment necessary to see it through. The treatment takes 6 months to a year for completion, and complications can happen. But when it works, the results are gratifying.
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Surgical operations to equalize leg lengths include the following. Shortening the longer leg. This is usually done if growth is already complete, and the patient is tall enough that losing an inch is not a problem. Slowing or stopping the growth of the longer leg. Growth of the lower limbs take place mainly in the epiphyseal plates (growth plates) of the lower femur and upper tibia and fibula. Stapling the growth plates in a child for a few years theoretically will stop growth for the period, and when the staples were removed, growth was supposed to resume. This procedure was quite popular till it was found that the amount of growth retarded was not certain, and when the staples where removed, the bone failed to resume its growth. Hence epiphyseal stapling has now been abandoned for the more reliable Epiphyseodesis. By use of modern fluoroscopic equipment, the surgeon can visualize the growth plate, and by making small incisions and using multiple drillings, the growth plate of the lower femur and/or upper tibia and fibula can be ablated. Since growth is stopped permanently by this procedure, the timing of the operation is crucial. This is probably the most commonly done procedure for correcting leg length discrepancy. But there is one limitation. The maximum amount of discrepancy that can be corrected by Epiphyseodesis is 5 cm. Lengthening the short leg. Various procedures have been done over the years to effect this result. External fixation devices are usually needed to hold the bone that is being lengthened. In the past, the bone to be lengthened was cut, and using the external fixation device, the leg was stretched out gradually over weeks. A gap in the bone was thus created, and a second operation was needed to place a bone block in the gap for stability and induce healing as a graft. More recently, a new technique called callotasis is being use. The bone to be lengthened is not cut completely, only partially and called a corticotomy. The bone is then distracted over an external device (usually an Ilizarov or Orthofix apparatus) very slowly so that bone healing is proceeding as the lengthening is being done. This avoids the need for a second procedure to insert bone graft. The procedure involved in leg lengthening is complicated, and fraught with risks. Theoretically, there is no limit to how much lengthening one can obtain, although the more ambitious one is, the higher the complication rate.