There are generally two kinds of leg length discrepancies. Structural discrepancy occurs when either the thigh (femur) or shin (tibia) bone in one leg is actually shorter than the corresponding bone in the other leg. Functional discrepancy occurs when the leg lengths are equal, but symmetry is altered somewhere above the leg, which in turn disrupts the symmetry of the legs. For example, developmental dislocation of the hip (DDH) can cause a functional discrepancy. In DDH, the top of the leg bone (femur) that is not properly positioned in the hip socket may hang lower than the femur on the other side, giving the appearance and symptoms of a leg length discrepancy.
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.
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.
Leg length discrepancy may be diagnosed during infancy or later in childhood, depending on the cause. Conditions such as hemihypertrophy or hemiatrophy are often diagnosed following standard newborn or infant examinations by a pediatrician, or anatomical asymmetries may be noticed by a child's parents. For young children with hemihypertophy as the cause of their LLD, it is important that they receive an abdominal ultrasound of the kidneys to insure that Wilm's tumor, which can lead to hypertrophy in the leg on the same side, is not present. In older children, LLD is frequently first suspected due to the emergence of a progressive limp, warranting a referral to a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon. The standard workup for LLD is a thorough physical examination, including a series of measurements of the different portions of the lower extremities with the child in various positions, such as sitting and standing. The orthopaedic surgeon will observe the child while walking and performing other simple movements or tasks, such as stepping onto a block. In addition, a number of x-rays of the legs will be taken, so as to make a definitive diagnosis and to assist with identification of the possible etiology (cause) of LLD. Orthopaedic surgeons will compare x-rays of the two legs to the child's age, so as to assess his/her skeletal age and to obtain a baseline for the possibility of excessive growth rate as a cause. A growth chart, which compares leg length to skeletal age, is a simple but essential tool used over time to track the progress of the condition, both before and after treatment. Occasionally, a CT scan or MRI is required to further investigate suspected causes or to get more sophisticated radiological pictures of bone or soft tissue.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatment of leg length inequality involves many different approaches, which vary among osteopaths, physiotherapist and chiropractor and whether the LLD is functional or structural. Thus is a combination of myofascial release (massage) & stretching of shortened muscles. Manipulation or mobilization of the spine, sacro-iliac joint (SIJ), hip, knee, foot. Orthotics, shoe lifts can be used to treat discrepancies from two to six cm (usually 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). Surgery (epiphysiodesis, epiphyseal stapling,bone resection).
Surgery is another option. In some cases the longer extremity can be shortened, but a major shortening may weaken the muscles of the extremity. In growing children, lower extremities can also be equalized by a surgical procedure that stops the growth at one or two sites of the longer extremity, while leaving the remaining growth undisturbed. Your physician can tell you how much equalization can be attained by surgically halting one or more growth centers. The procedure is performed under X-ray control through very small incisions in the knee area. This procedure will not cause an immediate correction in length. Instead, the LLD will gradually decrease as the opposite extremity continues to grow and "catch up." Timing of the procedure is critical; the goal is to attain equal length of the extremities at skeletal maturity, usually in the mid- to late teens. Disadvantages of this option include the possibility of slight over-correction or under-correction of the LLD and the patient?s adult height will be less than if the shorter extremity had been lengthened. Correction of significant LLDs by this method may make a patient?s body look slightly disproportionate because of the shorter legs.