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.
Some causes of leg length discrepancy (other than anatomical). Dysfunction of the hip joint itself leading to compensatory alterations by the joint and muscles that impact on the joint. Muscle mass itself, i.e., the vastus lateralis muscle, pushes the iliotibial band laterally, causing femoral compensations to maintain a line of progression during the gait cycle. This is often misdiagnosed as I-T band syndrome and subsequently treated incorrectly. The internal rotators of the lower limb are being chronically short or in a state of contracture. According to Cunningham's Manual of Practical Anatomy these are muscles whose insertion is lateral to the long axis of the femur. The external rotators of the hip joint are evidenced in the hip rotation test. The iliosacral joint displays joint fixations on the superior or inferior transverse, or the sagittal axes. This may result from many causes including joint, muscle, osseous or compensatory considerations. Short hamstring muscles, i.e., the long head of the biceps femoris muscle. In the closed kinetic chain an inability of the fibula to drop inferior will result in sacrotuberous ligament loading failure. The sacroiliac joint dysfunctions along its right or left oblique axis. Failure or incorrect loading of the Back Force Transmission System (the longitudinal-muscle-tendon-fascia sling and the oblique dorsal muscle-fascia-tendon sling). See the proceedings of the first and second Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back Pain. Sacral dysfunction (nutation or counternutation) on the respiratory axis. When we consider the above mentioned, and other causes, it should be obvious that unless we look at all of the causes of leg length discrepancy/asymmetry then we will most assuredly reach a diagnosis based on historical dogma or ritual rather than applying the rules of current differential diagnosis.
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.
Limb length discrepancy can be measured by a physician during a physical examination and through X-rays. Usually, the physician measures the level of the hips when the child is standing barefoot. A series of measured wooden blocks may be placed under the short leg until the hips are level. If the physician believes a more precise measurement is needed, he or she may use X-rays. In growing children, a physician may repeat the physical examination and X-rays every six months to a year to see if the limb length discrepancy has increased or remained unchanged. A limb length discrepancy may be detected on a screening examination for curvature of the spine (scoliosis). But limb length discrepancy does not cause scoliosis.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatments for limb-length discrepancies and differences vary, depending on the cause and severity of the condition. At Gillette, our orthopedic surgeons are experts in typical and atypical growth and development. Our expertise lets us plan treatments that offer a lifetime of benefits. Treatments might include monitoring growth and development, providing noninvasive treatments or therapy, and providing a combination of orthopedic surgical procedures. To date, alternative treatments (such as chiropractic care or physical therapy) have not measurably altered the progression of or improved limb-length conditions. However, children often have physical or occupational therapy to address related conditions, such as muscle weakness or inflexibility, or to speed recovery following a surgical procedure. In cases where surgical treatment isn?t necessary, our orthopedists may monitor patients and plan noninvasive treatments, such as, occupational therapy, orthoses (braces) and shoe inserts, physical therapy, prostheses (artificial limbs).
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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.