Leg length discrepancy is an orthopaedic problem that usually appears in childhood, in which one's two legs are of unequal lengths. Often abbreviated as ?LLD,' leg length discrepancy may be caused by or associated with a number of other orthopaedic or medical conditions, but is generally treated in a similar fashion, regardless of cause and depending on severity. Leg length discrepancy is sometimes divided up into 'true LLD' and 'functional LLD.' Functional LLD occurs when the legs are actually equal in length, but some other condition, such as pelvic obliquity (a tilt in the position of the pelvis), creates the appearance of legs of different lengths.
There are many causes of leg length discrepancy. Structural inequality is due to interference of normal bone growth of the lower extremity, which can occur from trauma or infection in a child. Functional inequality has many causes, including Poliomyelitis or other paralytic deformities can retard bone growth in children. Contracture of the Iliotibial band. Scoliosis or curvature of the spine. Fixed pelvic obliquity. Abduction or flexion contraction of the hip. Flexion contractures or other deformities of the knee. Foot deformities.
The effects vary from patient to patient, depending on the cause of the discrepancy and the magnitude of the difference. Differences of 3 1/2 to 4 percent of the total length of the lower extremity (4 cm or 1 2/3 inches in an average adult), including the thigh, lower leg and foot, may cause noticeable abnormalities while walking and require more effort to walk. Differences between the lengths of the upper extremities cause few problems unless the difference is so great that it becomes difficult to hold objects or perform chores with both hands. You and your physician can decide what is right for you after discussing the causes, treatment options and risks and benefits of limb lengthening, including no treatment at all. Although an LLD may be detected on a screening examination for curvature of the spine (scoliosis), LLD does not cause scoliosis. There is controversy about the effect of LLD on the spine. Some studies indicate that people with an LLD have a greater incidence of low back pain and an increased susceptibility to injuries, but other studies refute this relationship.
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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Surgeries to lengthen a leg are generally only performed when there is a difference in leg length of greater than four centimeters. These types of surgeries can be more difficult and have more complications, such as infections, delayed healing, dislocations, and high blood pressure. In a several step process, bone lengthening surgeries involve cutting a bone in two in order to allow new bone growth to occur. After the bone is cut, a special apparatus is worn with pins that will pull the bone apart at approximately one millimeter per day. This causes osteogenesis, or new bone growth, in between the cut bone segments. A cast or brace may be required for several months after surgery to allow the new bone growth to harden and provide extra support.