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.
Sometimes the cause of LLD is unknown, yet the pattern or combination of conditions is consistent with a certain abnormality. Examples include underdevelopment of the inner or outer side of the leg (hemimelias) or (partial) inhibition of growth of one side of the body of unknown cause (hemihypertrophy). These conditions are present at birth, but the limb length difference may be too small to be detected. As the child grows, the LLD increases and becomes more noticeable. In hemimelia, one of the two bones between the knee and the ankle (tibia or fibula) is abnormally short. There also may be associated foot or knee abnormalities. Hemihypertrophy or hemiatrophy are rare conditions in which there is a difference in length of both the arm and leg on only one side of the body. There may also be a difference between the two sides of the face. Sometimes no cause can be found. This type of limb length is called idiopathic. While there is a cause, it cannot be determined using currect diagnostic methods.
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
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.
The bone is lengthened by surgically applying an external fixation device to the leg. 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 the frame creates tension when the patient or family member turns its dial. This is done several times each day. The lengthening process begins approximately five to 10 days after surgery. The bone may lengthen 1 millimeter per day, or approximately 1 inch per month. Lengthening may be slower in a bone that was previously injured. It may also be slower if the leg was operated on before. Bones in patients with potential blood vessel abnormalities, such as cigarette smokers, may also need to be lengthened more slowly. The external fixator is worn until the bone is strong enough to support the patient safely. This usually takes about three months for each inch. Factors such as age, health, smoking and participation in rehabilitation can affect the amount of time needed.