You may be surprised to learn that most people have one leg that's just a bit longer than the other, or one foot that may be slightly larger. But for children with significant limb length discrepancies, the size difference between limbs can be a serious problem. There are two types of limb length discrepancies. Congenital discrepancy is when babies are born with one leg longer than the other. In some cases both legs are normal, except that one is shorter than the other. In other cases one particular part of the leg is underdeveloped or is absent. Acquired discrepancy is when babies are normal at birth, but some kind of injury happens, such as a severe fracture. The bone growth in that limb slows, which results in a leg length discrepancy that worsens as the child continues to grow.
The causes of LLD are many, including a previous injury, bone infection, bone diseases (dysplasias), inflammation (arthritis) and neurologic conditions. Previously broken bones may cause LLD by healing in a shortened position, especially if the bone was broken in many pieces (comminuted) or if skin and muscle tissue around the bone were severely injured and exposed (open fracture). Broken bones in children sometimes grow faster for several years after healing, causing the injured bone to become longer. Also, a break in a child?s bone through a growth center (located near the ends of the bone) may cause slower growth, resulting in a shorter extremity. Bone infections that occur in children while they are growing may cause a significant LLD, especially during infancy. Bone diseases may cause LLD, as well; examples are neurofibromatosis, multiple hereditary exostoses and Ollier disease. Inflammation of joints during growth may cause unequal extremity length. One example is juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis, the joint degeneration that occurs in adults, very rarely causes a significant LLD.
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 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
Treatments for limb-length discrepancies and differences vary, depending on the cause and severity of the condition. At Gillette, our orthopedic surgeons are experts in typical and atypical growth and development. Our expertise lets us plan treatments that offer a lifetime of benefits. Treatments might include monitoring growth and development, providing noninvasive treatments or therapy, and providing a combination of orthopedic surgical procedures. To date, alternative treatments (such as chiropractic care or physical therapy) have not measurably altered the progression of or improved limb-length conditions. However, children often have physical or occupational therapy to address related conditions, such as muscle weakness or inflexibility, or to speed recovery following a surgical procedure. In cases where surgical treatment isn?t necessary, our orthopedists may monitor patients and plan noninvasive treatments, such as, occupational therapy, orthoses (braces) and shoe inserts, physical therapy, prostheses (artificial limbs).
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Bone growth restriction (epiphysiodesis) The objective of this surgical procedure is to slow down growth in the longer leg. During surgery, doctors alter the growth plate of the bone in the longer leg by inserting a small plate or staples. This slows down growth, allowing the shorter leg to catch up over time. Your child may spend a night in the hospital after this procedure or go home the same day. Doctors may place a knee brace on the leg for a few days. It typically takes 2 to 3 months for the leg to heal completely. An alternative approach involves lengthening the shorter bone. We are more likely to recommend this approach if your child is on the short side of the height spectrum.