You may be surprised to learn that most people have one leg that's just a bit longer than the other, or one foot that may be slightly larger. But for children with significant limb length discrepancies, the size difference between limbs can be a serious problem. There are two types of limb length discrepancies. Congenital discrepancy is when babies are born with one leg longer than the other. In some cases both legs are normal, except that one is shorter than the other. In other cases one particular part of the leg is underdeveloped or is absent. Acquired discrepancy is when babies are normal at birth, but some kind of injury happens, such as a severe fracture. The bone growth in that limb slows, which results in a leg length discrepancy that worsens as the child continues to grow.
Limb-length conditions can result from congenital disorders of the bones, muscles or joints, disuse or overuse of the bones, muscles or joints caused by illness or disease, diseases, such as bone cancer, Issues of the spine, shoulder or hip, traumatic injuries, such as severe fractures that damage growth plates.
As patients develop LLD, they will naturally and even unknowingly attempt to compensate for the difference between their two legs by either bending the longer leg excessively or standing on the toes of the short leg. When walking, they are forced to step down on one side and thrust upwards on the other side, which leads to a gait pattern with an abnormal up and down motion. For many patients, especially adolescents, the appearance of their gait may be more personally troublesome than any symptoms that arise or any true functional deficiency. Over time, standing on one's toes can create a contracture at the ankle, in which the calf muscle becomes abnormally contracted, a condition that can help an LLD patient with walking, but may later require surgical repair. If substantial enough, LLD left untreated can contribute to other serious orthopaedic problems, such as degenerative arthritis, scoliosis, or lower back pain. However, with proper treatment, children with leg length discrepancy generally do quite well, without lingering functional or cosmetic deficiencies.
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
In order to measure for correction, use a series of blocks or sheets of firm material (cork or neoprene) of varying thickness, e.g., 1/8", 1/4", and 1/2". Place them under the short limb, either under the heel or the entire foot, depending on the pathology, until the patient feels most balanced. Usually you will not be able to correct for the full amount of the imbalance at the outset. The longer a patient has had the LLD, the less likely he or she will be able to tolerate a full correction immediately. This is a process of incremental improvements. 2 inch External Platform Lift Bear in mind that the initial lift may need to be augmented as the patient's musculoskeletal system begins to adjust. It is often recommended that the initial buildup should be 50 percent of the total. After a suitable break-in period, one month say, another 25 percent can be added. If warranted, the final 25 percent can be added a month later. Once you determine how much lift the patient can handle, you then need to decide how to best apply it. There are certain advantages and disadvantages to using either internal or external heel lifts.
Surgical lengthening of the shorter extremity (upper or lower) is another treatment option. The bone is lengthened by surgically applying an external fixator to the extremity in the operating room. The external fixator, a scaffold-like frame, is connected to the bone with wires, pins or both. A small crack is made in the bone and tension is created by the frame when it is "distracted" by the patient or family member who turns an affixed dial several times daily. The lengthening process begins approximately five to ten days after surgery. The bone may lengthen one millimeter per day, or approximately one inch per month. Lengthening may be slower in adults overall and in a bone that has been previously injured or undergone prior surgery. Bones in patients with potential blood vessel abnormalities (i.e., cigarette smokers) may also lengthen more slowly. The external fixator is worn until the bone is strong enough to support the patient safely, approximately three months per inch of lengthening. This may vary, however, due to factors such as age, health, smoking, participation in rehabilitation, etc. Risks of this procedure include infection at the site of wires and pins, stiffness of the adjacent joints and slight over or under correction of the bone?s length. Lengthening requires regular follow up visits to the physician?s office, meticulous hygiene of the pins and wires, diligent adjustment of the frame several times daily and rehabilitation as prescribed by your physician.