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.
There are many causes of leg length discrepancy. Some include, A broken leg bone may lead to a leg length discrepancy if it heals in a shortened position. This is more likely if the bone was broken in many pieces. It also is more likely if skin and muscle tissue around the bone were severely injured and exposed, as in an open fracture. Broken bones in children sometimes grow faster for several years after healing, causing the injured bone to become longer. A break in a child's bone through the growth center near the end of the bone may cause slower growth, resulting in a shorter leg. Bone infections that occur in children while they are growing may cause a significant leg length discrepancy. This is especially true if the infection happens in infancy. Inflammation of joints during growth may cause unequal leg length. One example is juvenile arthritis. Bone diseases may cause leg length discrepancy, as well. Examples are, Neurofibromatosis, Multiple hereditary exostoses, Ollier disease. Other causes include inflammation (arthritis) and neurologic conditions. Sometimes the cause of leg length discrepancy is unknown, particularly in cases involving underdevelopment of the inner or outer side of the leg, or partial overgrowth of one side of the body. These conditions are usually present at birth, but the leg length difference may be too small to be detected. As the child grows, the leg length discrepancy increases and becomes more noticeable. In underdevelopment, one of the two bones between the knee and the ankle is abnormally short. There also may be related foot or knee problems. Hemihypertrophy (one side too big) or hemiatrophy (one side too small) are rare leg length discrepancy conditions. In these conditions, the arm and leg on one side of the body are either longer or shorter than the arm and leg on the other side of the body. There may also be a difference between the two sides of the face. Sometimes no cause can be found. This is known as an "idiopathic" difference.
Faulty feet and ankle structure profoundly affect leg length and pelvic positioning. The most common asymmetrical foot position is the pronated foot. Sensory receptors embedded on the bottom of the foot alert the brain to the slightest weight shift. Since the brain is always trying to maintain pelvic balance, when presented with a long left leg, it attempts to adapt to the altered weight shift by dropping the left medial arch (shortening the long leg) and supinating the right arch to lengthen the short leg.1 Left unchecked, excessive foot pronation will internally rotate the left lower extremity, causing excessive strain to the lateral meniscus and medial collateral knee ligaments. Conversely, excessive supination tends to externally rotate the leg and thigh, creating opposite knee, hip and pelvic distortions.
The only way to decipher between anatomical and functional leg length inequalities (you can have both) is by a physical measurement and series of biomechanical tests. It is actually a simple process and gets to the true cause of some runner?s chronic foot, knee, hip and back pain. After the muscles are tested and the legs are measured it may be necessary to get a special X-ray that measures both of your thighs (Femurs) and legs (Tibias). The X-ray is read by a medical radiologist who provides a report of the actual difference down to the micrometer leaving zero room for error. Once the difference in leg length is known, the solution becomes clear.
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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Surgical options in leg length discrepancy treatment include procedures to lengthen the shorter leg, or shorten the longer leg. Your child's physician will choose the safest and most effective method based on the aforementioned factors. No matter the surgical procedure performed, physical therapy will be required after surgery in order to stretch muscles and help support the flexibility of the surrounding joints. Surgical shortening is safer than surgical lengthening and has fewer complications. Surgical procedures to shorten one leg include removing part of a bone, called a bone resection. They can also include epiphysiodesis or epiphyseal stapling, where the growth plate in a bone is tethered or stapled. This slows the rate of growth in the surgical leg.