Surgeries to lengthen a leg are generally only performed when there is a difference in leg length of greater than four centimeters. These types of surgeries can be more difficult and have more complications, such as infections, delayed healing, dislocations, and high blood pressure. In a several step process, bone lengthening surgeries involve cutting a bone in two in order to allow new bone growth to occur. After the bone is cut, a special apparatus is worn with pins that will pull the bone apart at approximately one millimeter per day. This causes osteogenesis, or new bone growth, in between the cut bone segments. A cast or brace may be required for several months after surgery to allow the new bone growth to harden and provide extra support.
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.
LLD do not have any pain or discomfort directly associated with the difference of one leg over the other leg. However, LLD will place stress on joints throughout the skeletal structure of the body and create discomfort as a byproduct of the LLD. Just as it is normal for your feet to vary slightly in size, a mild difference in leg length is normal, too. A more pronounced LLD, however, can create abnormalities when walking or running and adversely affect healthy balance and posture. Symptoms include a slight limp. Walking can even become stressful, requiring more effort and energy. Sometimes knee pain, hip pain and lower back pain develop. Foot mechanics are also affected causing a variety of complications in the foot, not the least, over pronating, metatarsalgia, bunions, hammer toes, instep pain, posterior tibial tendonitis, and many more.
A systematic and well organized approach should be used in the diagnosis of LLD to ensure all relevant factors are considered and no clues are overlooked which could explain the difference. To determine the asymmetry a patient should be evaluated whilst standing and walking. During the process special care should be used to note the extent of pelvic shift from side to side and deviation along the plane of the front or leading leg as well as the traverse deviation of the back leg and abnormal curvature of the spine. Dynamic gait analysis should be conducted during waling where observation of movement on the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes should be noted. Also observe head, neck and shoulder movements for any tilting.
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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Shortening techniques can be used after skeletal maturity to achieve leg length equality. Shortening can be done in the proximal femur using a blade plate or hip screw, in the mid-diaphysis of the femur using a closed intramedullary (IM) technique, or in the tibia. Shortening is an accurate technique and involves a much shorter convalescence than lengthening techniques. Quadriceps weakness may occur with femoral shortenings, especially if a mid-diaphyseal shortening of greater than 10% is done. If the femoral shortening is done proximally, no significant weakness should result. Tibial shortening can be done, but there may be a residual bulkiness to the leg, and risks of nonunion and compartment syndrome are higher. If a tibial shortening is done, shortening over an IM nail and prophylactic compartment release are recommended. We limit the use of shortenings to 4 to 5 cm leg length inequality in patients who are skeletally mature.