While many people have slight differences in the length of one leg compared to the other, a significant difference between the two legs can cause problems. Leg length discrepancies can disturb the way a person walks, how his or her spine lines up and strain hip joints.
Some children are born with absence or underdeveloped bones in the lower limbs e.g., congenital hemimelia. Others have a condition called hemihypertrophy that causes one side of the body to grow faster than the other. Sometimes, increased blood flow to one limb (as in a hemangioma or blood vessel tumor) stimulates growth to the limb. In other cases, injury or infection involving the epiphyseal plate (growth plate) of the femur or tibia inhibits or stops altogether the growth of the bone. Fractures healing in an overlapped position, even if the epiphyseal plate is not involved, can also cause limb length discrepancy. Neuromuscular problems like polio can also cause profound discrepancies, but thankfully, uncommon. Lastly, Wilms? tumor of the kidney in a child can cause hypertrophy of the lower limb on the same side. It is therefore important in a young child with hemihypertrophy to have an abdominal ultrasound exam done to rule out Wilms? tumor. It is important to distinguish true leg length discrepancy from apparent leg length discrepancy. Apparent discrepancy is due to an instability of the hip, that allows the proximal femur to migrate proximally, or due to an adduction or abduction contracture of the hip that causes pelvic obliquity, so that one hip is higher than the other. When the patient stands, it gives the impression of leg length discrepancy, when the problem is actually in the hip.
Back pain along with pain in the foot, knee, leg and hip on one side of the body are the main complaints. There may also be limping or head bop down on the short side or uneven arm swinging. The knee bend, hip or shoulder may be down on one side, and there may be uneven wear to the soles of shoes (usually more on the longer side).
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
People with uneven leg lengths may be more prone to pain in their back, hips, and knees; uneven gait; and lower leg and foot problems. Due to its risks, surgery is typically not recommended unless the difference is greater than one inch. In cases where the difference is less than one inch, providing the same support for both feet is the most effective. This can be achieved by getting custom-fitted orthotics for both feet. Orthotics are inserts that you wear in the shoes. Your chiropractor will request to measure your feet and possibly your legs. You can step on a device that will take the measurements or you might have a plaster cast of your feet taken. Orthotics are typically made from plastic and leather, and function biomechanically with your foot. If a leg length discrepancy is not properly corrected with orthotics, your chiropractor may recommend a heel lift, also known as a shoe lift. You simply place it in the back of your shoe along with the orthotic. Typically, you will only wear the heel lift in one shoe to assist the shorter leg.
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Surgical options in leg length discrepancy treatment include procedures to lengthen the shorter leg, or shorten the longer leg. Your child's physician will choose the safest and most effective method based on the aforementioned factors. No matter the surgical procedure performed, physical therapy will be required after surgery in order to stretch muscles and help support the flexibility of the surrounding joints. Surgical shortening is safer than surgical lengthening and has fewer complications. Surgical procedures to shorten one leg include removing part of a bone, called a bone resection. They can also include epiphysiodesis or epiphyseal stapling, where the growth plate in a bone is tethered or stapled. This slows the rate of growth in the surgical leg.