Limb-length discrepancies or differences are conditions that result in limbs that are unequal in length or that exhibit other anomalies. The conditions occur when bones or joints in the arms or legs are abnormal or become damaged. Providers might refer to these conditions as limb-length discrepancies, limb differences or limb-length conditions.
Some limb-length differences are caused by actual anatomic differences from one side to the other (referred to as structural causes). The femur is longer (or shorter) or the cartilage between the femur and tibia is thicker (or thinner) on one side. There could be actual deformities in one femur or hip joint contributing to leg length differences from side to side. Even a small structural difference can amount to significant changes in the anatomy of the limb. A past history of leg fracture, developmental hip dysplasia, slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE), short neck of the femur, or coxa vara can also lead to placement of the femoral head in the hip socket that is offset. The end-result can be a limb-length difference and early degenerative arthritis of the hip.
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.
A doctor will generally take a detailed medical history of both the patient and family, including asking about recent injuries or illnesses. He or she will carefully examine the patient, observing how he or she moves and stands. If necessary, an orthopedic surgeon will order X-ray, bone age determinations and computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Non Surgical Treatment
In some circumstances, the physician will recommend a non-surgical form of treatment. Non-surgical treatments include orthotics and prosthetics. Orthotics are a special type of lift placed in or on a shoe that can be used in the treatment of leg length discrepancies between two and six centimeters. In pediatric patients who have large discrepancies and are not good candidates for other treatment forms, prosthetics can be helpful.
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Your child will be given general anesthetic. We cut the bone and insert metal pins above and below the cut. A metal frame is attached to the pins to support the leg. Over weeks and months, the metal device is adjusted to gradually pull the bone apart to create space between the ends of the bones. New bone forms to fill in the space, extending the length of the bone. Once the lengthening process is completed and the bones have healed, your child will require one more short operation to remove the lengthening device. We will see your child regularly to monitor the leg and adjust the metal lengthening device. We may also refer your child to a physical therapist to ensure that he or she stays mobile and has full range of motion in the leg. Typically, it takes a month of healing for every centimeter that the leg is lengthened.