Leg length difference (LLD) is primarily when the hips are not level, causing a limp from side to side. Most practitioners divide LLD into anatomical or functional. Anatomical is when there is a true difference in the length of the tibia/fibula or the femur bone, or both. While functional LLD are either the shortening or lengthening of a limb, secondary to joint contracture or muscle imbalances.
The causes of LLD may be divided into those that shorten a limb versus those that lengthen a limb, or they may be classified as affecting the length versus the rate of growth in a limb. For example, a fracture that heals poorly may shorten a leg slightly, but does not affect its growth rate. Radiation, on the other hand, can affect a leg’s long-term ability to expand, but does not acutely affect its length. Causes that shorten the leg are more common than those that lengthen it and include congenital growth deficiencies (seen in hemiatrophy and skeletal dysplasias ), infections that infiltrate the epiphysis (e.g. osteomyelitis ), tumors, fractures that occur through the growth plate or have overriding ends, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE), and radiation. Lengthening can result from unique conditions, such as hemihypertrophy , in which one or more structures on one side of the body become larger than the other side, vascular malformations or tumors (such as hemangioma ), which cause blood flow on one side to exceed that of the other, Wilm’s tumor (of the kidney), septic arthritis, healed fractures, or orthopaedic surgery. Leg length discrepancy may arise from a problem in almost any portion of the femur or tibia. For example, fractures can occur at virtually all levels of the two bones. Fractures or other problems of the fibula do not lead to LLD, as long as the more central, weight-bearing tibia is unaffected. Because many cases of LLD are due to decreased rate of growth, the femoral or tibial epiphyses are commonly affected regions.
The effects vary from patient to patient, depending on the cause of the discrepancy and the magnitude of the difference. Differences of 3 1/2 to 4 percent of the total length of the lower extremity (4 cm or 1 2/3 inches in an average adult), including the thigh, lower leg and foot, may cause noticeable abnormalities while walking and require more effort to walk. Differences between the lengths of the upper extremities cause few problems unless the difference is so great that it becomes difficult to hold objects or perform chores with both hands. You and your physician can decide what is right for you after discussing the causes, treatment options and risks and benefits of limb lengthening, including no treatment at all. Although an LLD may be detected on a screening examination for curvature of the spine (scoliosis), LLD does not cause scoliosis. There is controversy about the effect of LLD on the spine. Some studies indicate that people with an LLD have a greater incidence of low back pain and an increased susceptibility to injuries, but other studies refute this relationship.
The most accurate method to identify leg (limb) length inequality (discrepancy) is through radiography. It?s also the best way to differentiate an anatomical from a functional limb length inequality. Radiography, A single exposure of the standing subject, imaging the entire lower extremity. Limitations are an inherent inaccuracy in patients with hip or knee flexion contracture and the technique is subject to a magnification error. Computed Tomography (CT-scan), It has no greater accuracy compared to the standard radiography. The increased cost for CT-scan may not be justified, unless a contracture of the knee or hip has been identified or radiation exposure must be minimized. However, radiography has to be performed by a specialist, takes more time and is costly. It should only be used when accuracy is critical. Therefore two general clinical methods were developed for assessing LLI. Direct methods involve measuring limb length with a tape measure between 2 defined points, in stand. Two common points are the anterior iliac spine and the medial malleolus or the anterior inferior iliac spine and lateral malleolus. Be careful, however, because there is a great deal of criticism and debate surrounds the accuracy of tape measure methods. If you choose for this method, keep following topics and possible errors in mind. Always use the mean of at least 2 or 3 measures. If possible, compare measures between 2 or more clinicians. Iliac asymmetries may mask or accentuate a limb length inequality. Unilateral deviations in the long axis of the lower limb (eg. Genu varum,?) may mask or accentuate a limb length inequality. Asymmetrical position of the umbilicus. Joint contractures. Indirect methods. Palpation of bony landmarks, most commonly the iliac crests or anterior iliac spines, in stand. These methods consist in detecting if bony landmarks are at (horizontal) level or if limb length inequality is present. Palpation and visual estimation of the iliac crest (or SIAS) in combination with the use of blocks or book pages of known thickness under the shorter limb to adjust the level of the iliac crests (or SIAS) appears to be the best (most accurate and precise) clinical method to asses limb inequality. You should keep in mind that asymmetric pelvic rotations in planes other than the frontal plane may be associated with limb length inequality. A review of the literature suggest, therefore, that the greater trochanter major and as many pelvic landmarks should be palpated and compared (left trochanter with right trochanter) when the block correction method is used.
Non Surgical Treatment
In an adult, we find that we can add a non compressive silicone heel lift to a shoe in increments of 3-4 mm maximum per week. Were we to give a patient with a 20 mm short leg, 20 mm of lift all at once, their entire body would rebel. The various compensations that the body has made, such as curvatures and shortening of muscles on the convex side of the curve, would make such a dramatic change not just noticeable, but painful. When we get close to balancing a patient by lifting a leg with heel inserts, then we perform another gait analysis and follow up xray. At that point, we can typically write them a final prescription to have their shoe modified. A heel lift is typically fine up to 7 mm. When it gets higher than that, the entire shoe must be modified. There are two reasons for this. The back of the shoe is generally too short to accommodate more than 7-8 mm inserted inside the shoes and a heel lift greater than 7 mm will lead to Achilles tendon shortening, which then creates it?s own panoply of problems.
Leg shortening is employed when LLD is severe and when a patient has already reached skeletal maturity. The actual surgery is called an osteotomy , which entails the removal of a small section of bone in the tibia (shinbone) and sometimes the fibula as well, resulting in the loss of around an inch in total height. Leg lengthening is a difficult third option that has traditionally had a high complication rate. Recently, results have improved somewhat with the emergence of a technique known as callotasis , in which only the outer portion of the bone (the cortex ) is cut, (i.e. a corticotomy ). This allows the bone to be more easily lengthened by an external fixation device that is attached to either side of the cut bone with pins through the skin. The ?ex-fix,’ as it is sometimes called, is gradually adjusted by an orthopaedic surgeon, and healing can occur at the same time that the leg is being distracted , or lengthened over time. Unlike epiphysiodesis, leg lengthening procedures can be performed at almost any skeletal or chronological age.