There are many different conditions in childhood and adult life that can lead to deformity of a limb or difference in leg lengths. Treatment for these conditions depends on the condition being treated, the age of the child and the amount of deformity or shortening. Generally, only a final difference of leg length of 2cm or more requires surgical treatment. An outline of treatment options is given below.
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.
Many people walk around with LLD?s of up to 2 cm. and not even know it. However, discrepancies above 2 cm. becomes more noticeable, and a slight limp is present. But even up to 3 cm. a small lift compensates very well, and many patients are quite happy with this arrangement. Beyond 3 cm. however, the limp is quite pronounced, and medical care is often sought at that point. Walking with a short leg gait is not only unsightly, but increases energy expenditure during ambulation. It could also put more stress on the long leg, and causes functional scoliosis. Where the discrepancy is more severe, walking becomes grotesque or virtually impossible.
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
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.
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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.