People with leg length discrepancy, when one leg is longer than the other, usually have a waddling-type gait where the hips seem to move up and down during walking as the body tries to compensate for the inequality. There are two types of leg length discrepancy. The first type of leg length discrepancy involves a structural defect, where one bone is longer or shorter than the corresponding bone of the other limb. This can occur within the femur (upper leg bone) or the tibia and fibular (lower leg bones). Functional leg length discrepancy results from altered mechanics due to a malalignment in the spine or lower extremity.
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.
If your child has one leg that is longer than the other, you may notice that he or she bends one leg. Stands on the toes of the shorter leg. Limps. The shorter leg has to be pushed upward, leading to an exaggerated up and down motion during walking. Tires easily. It takes more energy to walk with a discrepancy.
Infants, children or adolescents suspected of having a limb-length condition should receive an evaluation at the first sign of difficulty in using their arms or legs. In many cases, signs are subtle and only noticeable in certain situations, such as when buying clothing or playing sports. Proper initial assessments by qualified pediatric orthopedic providers can reduce the likelihood of long-term complications and increase the likelihood that less invasive management will be effective. In most cases, very mild limb length discrepancies require no formal treatment at all.
Non Surgical Treatment
You and your physician should discuss whether treatment is necessary. For minor LLDs in adults 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 one inch. For these small differences, your physician may recommend a shoe lift. A lift fitted to the shoe can often improve your walking and running, as well as relieve back pain caused by LLD. Shoe lifts are inexpensive and can be removed if they are not effective. They do, however, add weight and stiffness to the shoe.
Large leg length inequalities can be treated by staged lengthenings or by simultaneous ipsilateral femoral and tibial lengthenings. Additionally, lengthenings can be combined with appropriately timed epiphysiodesis in an effort to produce leg length equality. Staged lengthenings are often used for congenital deficiencies such as fibular hemimelia, in which 15 cm or more may be needed to produce leg length equality. We typically plan for the final lengthening to be completed by age 13 or 14 years, and allow at least 3 years between lengthenings. Lengthening of both the tibia and femur simultaneously requires aggressive therapy and treatment of soft tissue contractures. Curran et al reported the need for surgical release of soft tissue contractures in 3 of 8 patients treated with simultaneous ipsilateral femoral and tibial lengthenings. Lengthening over an IM nail can be done in an effort to decrease the amount of time the fixator needs to be worn and to prevent angular malalignment. This technique requires that the patient be skeletally mature and it carries a higher risk of osteomyelitis (up to 15%). Additionally, if premature consolidation occurs, a repeat corticotomy is more difficult.