In 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.
A number of causes may lead to leg length discrepancy in children. Differences in leg length frequently follow fractures in the lower extremities in children due to over or under stimulation of the growth plates in the broken leg. Leg length discrepancy may also be caused by a congenital abnormality associated with a condition called hemihypertrophy. Or it may result from neuromuscular diseases such as polio and cerebral palsy. Many times, no cause can be identified. A small leg length discrepancy of a quarter of an inch or less is quite common in the general population and of no clinical significance. Larger leg length discrepancies become more significant. The long-term consequences of a short leg may include knee pain, back pain, and abnormal gait or limp.
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.
A qualified musculoskeletal expert will first take a medical history and conduct a physical exam. Other tests may include X-rays, MRI, or CT scan to diagnose the root cause.
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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Limb deformity or leg length problems can be treated by applying an external frame to the leg. The frame consists of metal rings which go round the limb. The rings are held onto the body by wires and metal pins which pass through the skin and are anchored into the bone. During this operation, the bone is divided. Gradual adjustment of the frame results in creation of a new bone allowing a limb to be lengthened. The procedure involves the child having an anaesthetic. The child is normally in hospital for one week. The child and family are encouraged to clean pin sites around the limb. The adjustments of the frame (distractions) are performed by the child and/or family. The child is normally encouraged to walk on the operated limb and to actively exercise the joints above and below the frame. The child is normally reviewed on a weekly basis in clinic to monitor the correction of the deformity. The frame normally remains in place for 3 months up to one year depending on the condition which is being treated. The frame is normally removed under a general anaesthetic at the end of treatment.