Leg length discrepancy is an orthopaedic problem that usually appears in childhood, in which one's two legs are of unequal lengths. Often abbreviated as ?LLD,' leg length discrepancy may be caused by or associated with a number of other orthopaedic or medical conditions, but is generally treated in a similar fashion, regardless of cause and depending on severity. Leg length discrepancy is sometimes divided up into 'true LLD' and 'functional LLD.' Functional LLD occurs when the legs are actually equal in length, but some other condition, such as pelvic obliquity (a tilt in the position of the pelvis), creates the appearance of legs of different lengths.
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.
The patient/athlete may present with an altered gait (such as limping) and/or scoliosis and/or low back pain. Lower extremity disorders are possibly associated with LLD, some of these are increased hip pain and degeneration (especially involving the long leg). Increased risk of: knee injury, ITB syndrome, pronation and plantar fascitis, asymmetrical strength in lower extremity. Increased disc or vertebral degeneration. Symptoms vary between patients, some patients may complain of just headaches.
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
In an adult, we find that we can add a non compressive silicone heel lift to a shoe in increments of 3-4 mm maximum per week. Were we to give a patient with a 20 mm short leg, 20 mm of lift all at once, their entire body would rebel. The various compensations that the body has made, such as curvatures and shortening of muscles on the convex side of the curve, would make such a dramatic change not just noticeable, but painful. When we get close to balancing a patient by lifting a leg with heel inserts, then we perform another gait analysis and follow up xray. At that point, we can typically write them a final prescription to have their shoe modified. A heel lift is typically fine up to 7 mm. When it gets higher than that, the entire shoe must be modified. There are two reasons for this. The back of the shoe is generally too short to accommodate more than 7-8 mm inserted inside the shoes and a heel lift greater than 7 mm will lead to Achilles tendon shortening, which then creates it?s own panoply of problems.
Bone growth restriction (epiphysiodesis) The objective of this surgical procedure is to slow down growth in the longer leg. During surgery, doctors alter the growth plate of the bone in the longer leg by inserting a small plate or staples. This slows down growth, allowing the shorter leg to catch up over time. Your child may spend a night in the hospital after this procedure or go home the same day. Doctors may place a knee brace on the leg for a few days. It typically takes 2 to 3 months for the leg to heal completely. An alternative approach involves lengthening the shorter bone. We are more likely to recommend this approach if your child is on the short side of the height spectrum.