While many people have slight differences in the length of one leg compared to the other, a significant difference between the two legs can cause problems. Leg length discrepancies can disturb the way a person walks, how his or her spine lines up and strain hip joints.
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.
Many people walk around with LLD?s of up to 2 cm. and not even know it. However, discrepancies above 2 cm. becomes more noticeable, and a slight limp is present. But even up to 3 cm. a small lift compensates very well, and many patients are quite happy with this arrangement. Beyond 3 cm. however, the limp is quite pronounced, and medical care is often sought at that point. Walking with a short leg gait is not only unsightly, but increases energy expenditure during ambulation. It could also put more stress on the long leg, and causes functional scoliosis. Where the discrepancy is more severe, walking becomes grotesque or virtually impossible.
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
Treatment of leg length inequality involves many different approaches, such as orthotics, epiphysiodesis, shortening, and lengthening, which can be used alone or combined in an effort to achieve equalization of leg lengths. Leg length inequality of 2 cm or less is usually not a functional problem. Often, leg length can be equalized with a shoe lift, which usually corrects about two thirds of the leg length inequality. Up to 1 cm can be inserted in the shoe. For larger leg length inequalities, the shoe must be built up. This needs to be done for every shoe worn, thus limiting the type of shoe that the patient can wear. Leg length inequalities beyond 5 cm are difficult to treat with a shoe lift. The shoe looks unsightly, and often the patient complains of instability with such a large lift. A foot-in-foot prosthesis can be used for larger leg length inequalities. This is often done as a temporizing measure for young children with significant leg length inequalities. The prosthesis is bulky, and a fixed equinus contracture may result.
Many people undergo surgery for various reasons - arthritis, knee replacement, hip replacement, even back surgery. However, the underlying cause of leg length inequality still remains. So after expensive and painful surgery, follow by time-consuming and painful rehab, the true culprit still remains. Resuming normal activities only continues to place undue stress on the already overloaded side. Sadly so, years down the road more surgeries are recommended for other joints that now endure the excessive forces.