Many people undergo surgery for various reasons - arthritis, knee replacement, hip replacement, even back surgery. However, the underlying cause of leg length inequality still remains. So after expensive and painful surgery, follow by time-consuming and painful rehab, the true culprit still remains. Resuming normal activities only continues to place undue stress on the already overloaded side. Sadly so, years down the road more surgeries are recommended for other joints that now endure the excessive forces.
Common causes include bone infection, bone diseases, previous injuries, or broken bones. Other causes may include birth defects, arthritis where there is a loss of articular surface, or neurological conditions.
Patients with significant lower limb length discrepancies may walk with a limp, have the appearance of a curved spine (non-structural scoliosis), and experience back pain or fatigue. In addition, clothes may not fit right.
The only way to decipher between anatomical and functional leg length inequalities (you can have both) is by a physical measurement and series of biomechanical tests. It is actually a simple process and gets to the true cause of some runner?s chronic foot, knee, hip and back pain. After the muscles are tested and the legs are measured it may be necessary to get a special X-ray that measures both of your thighs (Femurs) and legs (Tibias). The X-ray is read by a medical radiologist who provides a report of the actual difference down to the micrometer leaving zero room for error. Once the difference in leg length is known, the solution becomes clear.
Non Surgical Treatment
The treatment of LLD depends primarily on the diagnosed cause, the age of the patient, and the severity of the discrepancy. Non-operative treatment is usually the first step in management and, in many cases, LLD is mild or is predicted to lessen in the future, based on growth rate estimates in the two legs. In such cases, no treatment may be necessary or can be delayed until a later stage of physical maturity that allows for clearer prognostic approximation. For LLD of 2cm to 2.5cm, treatment may be as simple as insertion of a heel lift or other shoe insert that evens out leg lengths, so to speak. For more severe cases, heel lifts can affect patient comfort when walking, decrease ankle stability, and greatly increase the risk of sprains. For infants with congenital shortening of the limb, a prosthetic ? often a custom-fit splint made of polypropylene ? may be successful in treating more severe LLD without surgery. In many instances, however, a surgical operation is the best treatment for LLD.
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Surgical lengthening of the shorter extremity (upper or lower) is another treatment option. The bone is lengthened by surgically applying an external fixator to the extremity in the operating room. 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 tension is created by the frame when it is "distracted" by the patient or family member who turns an affixed dial several times daily. The lengthening process begins approximately five to ten days after surgery. The bone may lengthen one millimeter per day, or approximately one inch per month. Lengthening may be slower in adults overall and in a bone that has been previously injured or undergone prior surgery. Bones in patients with potential blood vessel abnormalities (i.e., cigarette smokers) may also lengthen more slowly. The external fixator is worn until the bone is strong enough to support the patient safely, approximately three months per inch of lengthening. This may vary, however, due to factors such as age, health, smoking, participation in rehabilitation, etc. Risks of this procedure include infection at the site of wires and pins, stiffness of the adjacent joints and slight over or under correction of the bone?s length. Lengthening requires regular follow up visits to the physician?s office, meticulous hygiene of the pins and wires, diligent adjustment of the frame several times daily and rehabilitation as prescribed by your physician.