Leg length discrepancy (LLD) affects about 70% of the general population, and can be either structural - when the difference occurs in bone structures - or functional, because of mechanical changes at the lower limbs. The discrepancy can be also classified by its magnitude into mild, intermediate, or severe. Mild LLD has been particularly associated with stress fracture, low back pain and osteoarthritis, and when the discrepancy occurs in subjects whose mechanical loads are increased by their professional, daily or recreational activities, these orthopaedic changes may appear early and severely. The aim of this study was to analyze and compare ground reaction force (GRF) during gait in runners with and without mild LLD. Results showed that subjects with mild LLD of 0.5 to 2.0 cm presented higher values of minimum vertical GRF (0.57 ? 0.07 BW) at the shorter limb compared to the longer limb (0.56 ? 0.08 BW) Therefore, subjects with mild LLD adopt compensatory mechanisms that cause additional overloads to the musculoskeletal system in order to promote a symmetrical gait pattern as showed by the values of absolute symmetric index of vertical and horizontal GRF variables.
Some children are born with absence or underdeveloped bones in the lower limbs e.g., congenital hemimelia. Others have a condition called hemihypertrophy that causes one side of the body to grow faster than the other. Sometimes, increased blood flow to one limb (as in a hemangioma or blood vessel tumor) stimulates growth to the limb. In other cases, injury or infection involving the epiphyseal plate (growth plate) of the femur or tibia inhibits or stops altogether the growth of the bone. Fractures healing in an overlapped position, even if the epiphyseal plate is not involved, can also cause limb length discrepancy. Neuromuscular problems like polio can also cause profound discrepancies, but thankfully, uncommon. Lastly, Wilms? tumor of the kidney in a child can cause hypertrophy of the lower limb on the same side. It is therefore important in a young child with hemihypertrophy to have an abdominal ultrasound exam done to rule out Wilms? tumor. It is important to distinguish true leg length discrepancy from apparent leg length discrepancy. Apparent discrepancy is due to an instability of the hip, that allows the proximal femur to migrate proximally, or due to an adduction or abduction contracture of the hip that causes pelvic obliquity, so that one hip is higher than the other. When the patient stands, it gives the impression of leg length discrepancy, when the problem is actually in the hip.
Faulty feet and ankle structure profoundly affect leg length and pelvic positioning. The most common asymmetrical foot position is the pronated foot. Sensory receptors embedded on the bottom of the foot alert the brain to the slightest weight shift. Since the brain is always trying to maintain pelvic balance, when presented with a long left leg, it attempts to adapt to the altered weight shift by dropping the left medial arch (shortening the long leg) and supinating the right arch to lengthen the short leg.1 Left unchecked, excessive foot pronation will internally rotate the left lower extremity, causing excessive strain to the lateral meniscus and medial collateral knee ligaments. Conversely, excessive supination tends to externally rotate the leg and thigh, creating opposite knee, hip and pelvic distortions.
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
In some circumstances, the physician will recommend a non-surgical form of treatment. Non-surgical treatments include orthotics and prosthetics. Orthotics are a special type of lift placed in or on a shoe that can be used in the treatment of leg length discrepancies between two and six centimeters. In pediatric patients who have large discrepancies and are not good candidates for other treatment forms, prosthetics can be helpful.
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Lengthening is usually done by corticotomy and gradual distraction. This technique can result in lengthenings of 25% or more, but typically lengthening of 15%, or about 6 cm, is recommended. The limits of lengthening depend on patient tolerance, bony consolidation, maintenance of range of motion, and stability of the joints above and below the lengthened limb. Numerous fixation devices are available, such as the ring fixator with fine wires, monolateral fixator with half pins, or a hybrid frame. The choice of fixation device depends on the desired goal. A monolateral device is easier to apply and better tolerated by the patient. The disadvantages of monolateral fixation devices include the limitation of the degree of angular correction that can concurrently be obtained; the cantilever effect on the pins, which may result in angular deformity, especially when lengthening the femur in large patients; and the difficulty in making adjustments without placing new pins. Monolateral fixators appear to have a similar success rate as circular fixators, especially with more modest lengthenings (20%).