Having one leg shorter than the other is a common physical condition. It has two primary causes--structural or functional problems. Structural differences in length can be the result of growth defect, previous injuries or surgeries. Functional differences in length can result from altered mechanics of the feet, knee, hip and/or pelvis. These altered mechanics from functional leg length discrepancy often stem from having an unbalanced foundation.
Limb-length conditions can result from congenital disorders of the bones, muscles or joints, disuse or overuse of the bones, muscles or joints caused by illness or disease, diseases, such as bone cancer, Issues of the spine, shoulder or hip, traumatic injuries, such as severe fractures that damage growth plates.
Patients with significant lower limb length discrepancies may walk with a limp, have the appearance of a curved spine (non-structural scoliosis), and experience back pain or fatigue. In addition, clothes may not fit right.
The most accurate method to identify leg (limb) length inequality (discrepancy) is through radiography. It?s also the best way to differentiate an anatomical from a functional limb length inequality. Radiography, A single exposure of the standing subject, imaging the entire lower extremity. Limitations are an inherent inaccuracy in patients with hip or knee flexion contracture and the technique is subject to a magnification error. Computed Tomography (CT-scan), It has no greater accuracy compared to the standard radiography. The increased cost for CT-scan may not be justified, unless a contracture of the knee or hip has been identified or radiation exposure must be minimized. However, radiography has to be performed by a specialist, takes more time and is costly. It should only be used when accuracy is critical. Therefore two general clinical methods were developed for assessing LLI. Direct methods involve measuring limb length with a tape measure between 2 defined points, in stand. Two common points are the anterior iliac spine and the medial malleolus or the anterior inferior iliac spine and lateral malleolus. Be careful, however, because there is a great deal of criticism and debate surrounds the accuracy of tape measure methods. If you choose for this method, keep following topics and possible errors in mind. Always use the mean of at least 2 or 3 measures. If possible, compare measures between 2 or more clinicians. Iliac asymmetries may mask or accentuate a limb length inequality. Unilateral deviations in the long axis of the lower limb (eg. Genu varum,?) may mask or accentuate a limb length inequality. Asymmetrical position of the umbilicus. Joint contractures. Indirect methods. Palpation of bony landmarks, most commonly the iliac crests or anterior iliac spines, in stand. These methods consist in detecting if bony landmarks are at (horizontal) level or if limb length inequality is present. Palpation and visual estimation of the iliac crest (or SIAS) in combination with the use of blocks or book pages of known thickness under the shorter limb to adjust the level of the iliac crests (or SIAS) appears to be the best (most accurate and precise) clinical method to asses limb inequality. You should keep in mind that asymmetric pelvic rotations in planes other than the frontal plane may be associated with limb length inequality. A review of the literature suggest, therefore, that the greater trochanter major and as many pelvic landmarks should be palpated and compared (left trochanter with right trochanter) when the block correction method is used.
Non Surgical Treatment
For 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 are inexpensive and can be removed if they are not effective.
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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.