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Apparent Leg Length Discrepancy

Overview

Some people have an ?apparent? LLD which may make the affected leg seem longer than the other leg. There are several factors that can contribute to this feeling. Most commonly, contractures or shortening of the muscles surrounding the hip joint and pelvis make the involved leg feel longer, even when both legs are really the same length. Additionally, contractures of the muscles around the lower back from spinal disorders (i.e. arthritis, spinal stenosis), curvatures of the spine from scoliosis, and deformities of the knee or ankle joint can make one leg seem longer or shorter. In the general public, some people have an ?apparent LLD? as long as one half inch but usually don?t notice it because the LLD occurs over time. A ?true? LLD is where one leg is actually longer than the other. Patients can have unequal leg lengths of 1/4? to 1/2? and never feel it too! You can also have combinations of ?True? and ?Apparent? LLDs. During total hip replacement surgery, the surgeon may ?lengthen? the involved leg by stretching the muscles and ligaments that were contracted, as well as by restoring the joint space that had become narrowed from the arthritis. This is usually a necessary part of the surgery because it also provides stability to the new hip joint. Your surgeon takes measurements of your leg lengths on x-ray prior to surgery. Your surgeon always aims for equal leg lengths if at all possible and measures the length of your legs before and during surgery in order to achieve this goal. Occasionally, surgeons may need to lengthen the operable leg to help improve stability and prevent dislocations as well improve the muscle function around the hip.Leg Length Discrepancy

Causes

A number of causes may lead to leg length discrepancy in children. Differences in leg length frequently follow fractures in the lower extremities in children due to over or under stimulation of the growth plates in the broken leg. Leg length discrepancy may also be caused by a congenital abnormality associated with a condition called hemihypertrophy. Or it may result from neuromuscular diseases such as polio and cerebral palsy. Many times, no cause can be identified. A small leg length discrepancy of a quarter of an inch or less is quite common in the general population and of no clinical significance. Larger leg length discrepancies become more significant. The long-term consequences of a short leg may include knee pain, back pain, and abnormal gait or limp.

Symptoms

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.

Diagnosis

The doctor carefully examines the child. He or she checks to be sure the legs are actually different lengths. This is because problems with the hip (such as a loose joint) or back (scoliosis) can make the child appear to have one shorter leg, even though the legs are the same length. An X-ray of the child?s legs is taken. During the X-ray, a long ruler is put in the image so an accurate measurement of each leg bone can be taken. If an underlying cause of the discrepancy is suspected, tests are done to rule it out.

Non Surgical Treatment

Whether or not treatment should be pursued depends on the amount of discrepancy. In general, no treatment (other than a heel life, if desired) should be considered for discrepancies under two centimeters. If the discrepancy measures between two and five centimeters, one might consider a procedure to equalize leg length. Usually, this would involve closure of the growth plate on the long side, thereby allowing the short side to catch up; shortening the long leg; or possibly lengthening the short leg.

Leg Length Discrepancy

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Surgical Treatment

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.

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