For discrepancies over five centimeters, more aggressive surgical procedures-specifically leg lengthening procedures-are typically required. The specifics of this operative procedure are beyond the scope of this informational page, but your child's physician will be able to discuss the details in reference to your child's specific problems when considered appropriate.
Some limb-length differences are caused by actual anatomic differences from one side to the other (referred to as structural causes). The femur is longer (or shorter) or the cartilage between the femur and tibia is thicker (or thinner) on one side. There could be actual deformities in one femur or hip joint contributing to leg length differences from side to side. Even a small structural difference can amount to significant changes in the anatomy of the limb. A past history of leg fracture, developmental hip dysplasia, slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE), short neck of the femur, or coxa vara can also lead to placement of the femoral head in the hip socket that is offset. The end-result can be a limb-length difference and early degenerative arthritis of the hip.
The effects vary from patient to patient, depending on the cause of the discrepancy and the magnitude of the difference. Differences of 3 1/2 to 4 percent of the total length of the lower extremity (4 cm or 1 2/3 inches in an average adult), including the thigh, lower leg and foot, may cause noticeable abnormalities while walking and require more effort to walk. Differences between the lengths of the upper extremities cause few problems unless the difference is so great that it becomes difficult to hold objects or perform chores with both hands. You and your physician can decide what is right for you after discussing the causes, treatment options and risks and benefits of limb lengthening, including no treatment at all. Although an LLD may be detected on a screening examination for curvature of the spine (scoliosis), LLD does not cause scoliosis. There is controversy about the effect of LLD on the spine. Some studies indicate that people with an LLD have a greater incidence of low back pain and an increased susceptibility to injuries, but other studies refute this relationship.
A doctor will generally take a detailed medical history of both the patient and family, including asking about recent injuries or illnesses. He or she will carefully examine the patient, observing how he or she moves and stands. If necessary, an orthopedic surgeon will order X-ray, bone age determinations and computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Non Surgical Treatment
Internal heel lifts: Putting a simple heel lift inside the shoe or onto a foot orthotic has the advantage of being transferable to many pairs of shoes. It is also aesthetically more pleasing as the lift remains hidden from view. However, there is a limit as to how high the lift can be before affecting shoe fit. Dress shoes will usually only accommodate small lifts (1/8"1/4") before the heel starts to piston out of the shoe. Sneakers and workboots may allow higher lifts, e.g., up to 1/2", before heel slippage problems arise. External heel lifts: If a lift of greater than 1/2" is required, you should consider adding to the outsole of the shoe. In this way, the shoe fit remains good. Although some patients may worry about the cosmetics of the shoe, it does ensure better overall function. Nowadays with the development of synthetic foams and crepes, such lifts do not have to be as heavy as the cork buildups of the past. External buildups are not transferable and they will wear down over time, so the patient will need to be vigilant in having them repaired. On ladies' high-heel shoes, it may be possible to lower one heel and thereby correct the imbalance.
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Surgery to shorten the longer leg. This is less involved than lengthening the shorter leg. Shortening may be done in one of two ways. Closing the growth plate of the long leg 2-3 years before growth ends (around age 11-13), letting the short leg catch up. This procedure is called an epiphysiodesis. Taking some bone from the longer leg once growth is complete to even out leg lengths. Surgery to lengthen the shorter leg. This surgery is more involved than surgery to shorten a leg. During this surgery, cuts are made in the leg bone. An external metal frame and bar are attached to the leg bone. This frame and bar slowly pull on the leg bone, lengthening it. The frame and bar must be worn constantly for months to years. When the frame and bar are removed, a leg cast is required for several months. This surgery requires careful and continued follow-up with the surgeon to be sure that healing is going well.