Differences between the lengths of the upper and/or lower legs are called leg length discrepancies (LLD). A leg length difference may simply be a mild variation between the two sides of the body. This is not unusual in the general population. For example, one study reported that 32 percent of 600 military recruits had a 1/5 inch to a 3/5 inch difference between the lengths of their legs. This is a normal variation. Greater differences may need treatment because a significant difference can affect a patient's well-being and quality of life.
Some limb-length differences are caused by actual anatomic differences from one side to the other (referred to as structural causes). The femur is longer (or shorter) or the cartilage between the femur and tibia is thicker (or thinner) on one side. There could be actual deformities in one femur or hip joint contributing to leg length differences from side to side. Even a small structural difference can amount to significant changes in the anatomy of the limb. A past history of leg fracture, developmental hip dysplasia, slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE), short neck of the femur, or coxa vara can also lead to placement of the femoral head in the hip socket that is offset. The end-result can be a limb-length difference and early degenerative arthritis of the hip.
In addition to the distinctive walk of a person with leg length discrepancy, over time, other deformities may be noted, which help compensate for the condition. Toe walking on the short side to decrease the swaying during gait. The foot will supinate (high arch) on the shorter side. The foot will pronate (flattening of the arch) on the longer side. Excessive pronation leads to hypermobility and instability, resulting in metatarsus primus varus and associated unilateral juvenile hallux valgus (bunion) deformity.
A systematic and well organized approach should be used in the diagnosis of LLD to ensure all relevant factors are considered and no clues are overlooked which could explain the difference. To determine the asymmetry a patient should be evaluated whilst standing and walking. During the process special care should be used to note the extent of pelvic shift from side to side and deviation along the plane of the front or leading leg as well as the traverse deviation of the back leg and abnormal curvature of the spine. Dynamic gait analysis should be conducted during waling where observation of movement on the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes should be noted. Also observe head, neck and shoulder movements for any tilting.
Non Surgical Treatment
Non-surgical treatment can be effective. A shoe lift may be recommended if the leg length difference is less than 1 inch. More significant leg length discrepancies may require a surgical procedure. In children, surgical procedures are available to help make leg lengths more equal.
what are shoe 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.