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.
The causes of LLD may be divided into those that shorten a limb versus those that lengthen a limb, or they may be classified as affecting the length versus the rate of growth in a limb. For example, a fracture that heals poorly may shorten a leg slightly, but does not affect its growth rate. Radiation, on the other hand, can affect a leg's long-term ability to expand, but does not acutely affect its length. Causes that shorten the leg are more common than those that lengthen it and include congenital growth deficiencies (seen in hemiatrophy and skeletal dysplasias ), infections that infiltrate the epiphysis (e.g. osteomyelitis ), tumors, fractures that occur through the growth plate or have overriding ends, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE), and radiation. Lengthening can result from unique conditions, such as hemihypertrophy , in which one or more structures on one side of the body become larger than the other side, vascular malformations or tumors (such as hemangioma ), which cause blood flow on one side to exceed that of the other, Wilm's tumor (of the kidney), septic arthritis, healed fractures, or orthopaedic surgery. Leg length discrepancy may arise from a problem in almost any portion of the femur or tibia. For example, fractures can occur at virtually all levels of the two bones. Fractures or other problems of the fibula do not lead to LLD, as long as the more central, weight-bearing tibia is unaffected. Because many cases of LLD are due to decreased rate of growth, the femoral or tibial epiphyses are commonly affected regions.
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.
Leg length discrepancy may be diagnosed during infancy or later in childhood, depending on the cause. Conditions such as hemihypertrophy or hemiatrophy are often diagnosed following standard newborn or infant examinations by a pediatrician, or anatomical asymmetries may be noticed by a child's parents. For young children with hemihypertophy as the cause of their LLD, it is important that they receive an abdominal ultrasound of the kidneys to insure that Wilm's tumor, which can lead to hypertrophy in the leg on the same side, is not present. In older children, LLD is frequently first suspected due to the emergence of a progressive limp, warranting a referral to a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon. The standard workup for LLD is a thorough physical examination, including a series of measurements of the different portions of the lower extremities with the child in various positions, such as sitting and standing. The orthopaedic surgeon will observe the child while walking and performing other simple movements or tasks, such as stepping onto a block. In addition, a number of x-rays of the legs will be taken, so as to make a definitive diagnosis and to assist with identification of the possible etiology (cause) of LLD. Orthopaedic surgeons will compare x-rays of the two legs to the child's age, so as to assess his/her skeletal age and to obtain a baseline for the possibility of excessive growth rate as a cause. A growth chart, which compares leg length to skeletal age, is a simple but essential tool used over time to track the progress of the condition, both before and after treatment. Occasionally, a CT scan or MRI is required to further investigate suspected causes or to get more sophisticated radiological pictures of bone or soft tissue.
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.
Differences of an inch-and-a-half to two inches may require epiphysiodesis (adjusting the growth of the longer side) or acute shortening of the other side. Differences greater than 2.5 inches usually require a lengthening procedure. The short bone is cut and an external device is applied. Gradual lengthening is done over months to allow the muscles and nerves accommodate the new length.