Many children have one leg that is marginally longer than the other. In most cases, the difference is present at birth but may be too slight to be detected. More significant leg length differences (more than 2 cm) often become obvious as your child grows and begins to crawl and walk. We don?t always know what causes these discrepancies. A significant discrepancy can lead to more serious problems including arthritis and difficulty walking. However, with appropriate treatment, most children with this condition can participate in regular activities. Treatment options include heel lifts and, in more severe cases, surgery to either lengthen or shorten a leg.
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.
Patients with significant lower limb length discrepancies may walk with a limp, have the appearance of a curved spine (non-structural scoliosis), and experience back pain or fatigue. In addition, clothes may not fit right.
There are several orthopedic tests that are used, but they are rudimentary and have some degree of error. Even using a tape measure with specific anatomic landmarks has its errors. Most leg length differences can be seen with a well trained eye, but I always recommend what is called a scanagram, or a x-ray bone length study (see picture above). This test will give a precise measurement in millimeters of the length difference.
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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Many people undergo surgery for various reasons - arthritis, knee replacement, hip replacement, even back surgery. However, the underlying cause of leg length inequality still remains. So after expensive and painful surgery, follow by time-consuming and painful rehab, the true culprit still remains. Resuming normal activities only continues to place undue stress on the already overloaded side. Sadly so, years down the road more surgeries are recommended for other joints that now endure the excessive forces.