|Limb Length Discrepancy
The effects of limb length discrepancy vary from patient to patient, depending on the cause and size of the difference. Differences of 3 1/2 percent to 4 percent of the total length of the leg (about 4 cm or 1 2/3 inches in an average adult) may cause noticeable abnormalities when walking. These differences may require the patient to exert more effort to walk. There is controversy about the effect of limb length discrepancy on back pain. Some studies show that people with a limb length discrepancy have a greater incidence of low back pain and an increased susceptibility to injuries. Other studies do not support this finding.
Surgical TreatmentIn growing children, legs can be made equal or nearly equal in length with a relatively simple surgical procedure. This procedure slows down the growth of the longer leg at one or two growth sites. Your physician can tell you how much equalization can be gained by this procedure. The procedure is performed under X-ray control through very small incisions in the knee area. This procedure will not cause an immediate correction in length. Instead, the limb length discrepancy will gradually decrease as the opposite extremity continues to grow and "catch up."
Timing of the procedure is critical. The goal is to reach equal leg length by the time growth normally ends. This is usually in the mid-to-late teenage years. Disadvantages of this option include the possibility of slight over-correction or under-correction of the limb length discrepancy. In addition, the patient's adult height will be less than if the shorter leg had been lengthened. Correction of significant limb length discrepancy by this method may make a patient's body look slightly disproportionate because of the shorter leg.
In some cases the longer leg can be shortened, but a major shortening may weaken the muscles of the leg. In the thighbone (femur), a maximum of 3 inches can be shortened. In the shinbone, a maximum of 2 inches can be shortened.
Surgical lengthening of the shorter leg is another choice. 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.
Nonsurgical TreatmentFor minor limb length discrepancy in patients 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 1 inch. For these small differences, the physician may recommend a shoe lift. A lift fitted to the shoe can often improve walking and running, as well as relieve any back pain that may be caused by the limb length discrepancy. Shoe lifts inserts are inexpensive and can be removed if they are not effective.