Children of many ages can have legs of unequal lengths. The medical diagnosis for this condition is called leg length discrepancy. The difference in length can be as small as one centimeter and as large as six centimeters or more. The greater the discrepancy, the more your child will have difficulty walking and maintaining proper posture. Significant differences in leg length can also cause functional scoliosis and problems with other parts of the legs and lower body. This makes leg length discrepancy treatment very important in order to maintain proper health and function of the child. The greater the difference in leg length, the higher the likelihood of necessary treatment.
Leg length discrepancies can be caused by poor alignment of the pelvis or simply because one leg is structurally longer than the other. Regardless of the reason, your body wants to be symmetrical and will do its best to compensate for the length difference. The greater the leg length difference, the earlier the symptoms will present themselves to the patient. Specific diagnoses that coincide with leg length discrepancy include: scoliosis, lumbar herniated discs, sacroiliitis, pelvic obiliquity, greater trochanteric bursitis, hip arthritis, piriformis syndrome, patellofemoral syndrome and foot pronation. Other potential causes could be due to an injury (such as a fracture), bone disease, bone tumors, congenital problems (present at birth) or from a neuromuscular problem.
As patients develop LLD, they will naturally and even unknowingly attempt to compensate for the difference between their two legs by either bending the longer leg excessively or standing on the toes of the short leg. When walking, they are forced to step down on one side and thrust upwards on the other side, which leads to a gait pattern with an abnormal up and down motion. For many patients, especially adolescents, the appearance of their gait may be more personally troublesome than any symptoms that arise or any true functional deficiency. Over time, standing on one's toes can create a contracture at the ankle, in which the calf muscle becomes abnormally contracted, a condition that can help an LLD patient with walking, but may later require surgical repair. If substantial enough, LLD left untreated can contribute to other serious orthopaedic problems, such as degenerative arthritis, scoliosis, or lower back pain. However, with proper treatment, children with leg length discrepancy generally do quite well, without lingering functional or cosmetic deficiencies.
A qualified musculoskeletal expert will first take a medical history and conduct a physical exam. Other tests may include X-rays, MRI, or CT scan to diagnose the root cause.
Non Surgical Treatment
Non-surgical treatment can be effective. A shoe lift may be recommended if the leg length difference is less than 1 inch. More significant leg length discrepancies may require a surgical procedure. In children, surgical procedures are available to help make leg lengths more equal.
In growing children, legs can be made equal or nearly equal in length with a relatively simple surgical procedure. This procedure slows down the growth of the longer leg at one or two growth sites. Your physician can tell you how much equalization can be gained by this procedure. 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 limb length discrepancy will gradually decrease as the opposite extremity continues to grow and "catch up." Timing of the procedure is critical. The goal is to reach equal leg length by the time growth normally ends. This is usually in the mid-to-late teenage years. Disadvantages of this option include the possibility of slight over-correction or under-correction of the limb length discrepancy. In addition, the patient's adult height will be less than if the shorter leg had been lengthened. Correction of significant limb length discrepancy by this method may make a patient's body look slightly disproportionate because of the shorter leg. In some cases the longer leg can be shortened, but a major shortening may weaken the muscles of the leg. In the thighbone (femur), a maximum of 3 inches can be shortened. In the shinbone, a maximum of 2 inches can be shortened.