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.
Sometimes the cause of LLD is unknown, yet the pattern or combination of conditions is consistent with a certain abnormality. Examples include underdevelopment of the inner or outer side of the leg (hemimelias) or (partial) inhibition of growth of one side of the body of unknown cause (hemihypertrophy). These conditions are present at birth, but the limb length difference may be too small to be detected. As the child grows, the LLD increases and becomes more noticeable. In hemimelia, one of the two bones between the knee and the ankle (tibia or fibula) is abnormally short. There also may be associated foot or knee abnormalities. Hemihypertrophy or hemiatrophy are rare conditions in which there is a difference in length of both the arm and leg on only one side of the body. There may also be a difference between the two sides of the face. Sometimes no cause can be found. This type of limb length is called idiopathic. While there is a cause, it cannot be determined using currect diagnostic methods.
The effects of limb length discrepancy vary from patient to patient, depending on the cause and size of the difference. Differences of 3 1/2 percent to 4 percent of the total length of the leg (about 4 cm or 1 2/3 inches in an average adult) may cause noticeable abnormalities when walking. These differences may require the patient to exert more effort to walk. There is controversy about the effect of limb length discrepancy on back pain. Some studies show that people with a limb length discrepancy have a greater incidence of low back pain and an increased susceptibility to injuries. Other studies do not support this finding.
There are several orthopedic tests that are used, but they are rudimentary and have some degree of error. Even using a tape measure with specific anatomic landmarks has its errors. Most leg length differences can be seen with a well trained eye, but I always recommend what is called a scanagram, or a x-ray bone length study (see picture above). This test will give a precise measurement in millimeters of the length difference.
Non Surgical Treatment
The non-surgical intervention is mainly usedfor the functional and environmental types of leg length discrepancies. It is also applied to the mild category of limb length inequality. Non-surgical intervention consists of stretching the muscles of the lower extremity. This is individually different, whereby the M. Tensor Fascia latae, the adductors, the hamstring muscles, M. piriformis and M. Iliopsoas are stretched. In this non-surgical intervention belongs also the use of shoe lifts. These shoe lifts consists of either a shoe insert (up to 10-20mm of correction), or building up the sole of the shoe on the shorter leg (up to 30-60mm of correction). This lift therapy should be implemented gradually in small increments. Several studies have examined the treatment of low back pain patients with LLD with shoe lifts. Gofton obtained good results: the patients experienced major or complete pain relief that lasted upon follow-up ranging from 3 to 11 years. Helliwell also observed patients whereby 44% experienced complete pain relief, and 45% had moderate or substantial pain relief. Friberg found that 157 (of 211) patients with LBP, treated with shoe lifts, were symprom-free after a mean follow-up of 18 months.
Epiphysiodesis is a surgical option designed to slow down the growth of the long leg over a period of months to years. It is only used in growing children. The operation involves a general anaesthetic. Small incisions are made around the knee near the growth plates of the thigh bone and the shin bone. The growth plates are prevented from growing by the use of small screws and plates (?8 - plates?). The screws are buried beneath the skin and are not visible. Stitches are buried beneath the skin and do not need to be removed. The child is normally in hospital for 2-3 days. The child can weight bear immediately and return back to normal activity within a few weeks. Long term follow up is required to monitor the effects of the surgery. The timing of the surgery is based on the amount of growth predicted for the child. Therefore, this procedure can under- and over-correct the difference in leg length. Occasionally the screws have to be removed to allow growth to continue. This procedure can be used on one half of the growth plate to correct deformity in a limb e.g. knock-knees or bow legs. This is known as hemiepiphysiodesis.