Differences between lengths of the two upper extremities (upper and/or lower arms) or between the lengths of the two lower extremities (upper and/or lower legs) are called limb length discrepancy (LLD). A limb length discrepancy may be due to a normal variation that we all have between the two sides of our bodies, or it may be due to other causes. Some differences are so common that they are normal and need no treatment. For example, one study reported that 32 percent of 600 military recruits had a 5mm to 15mm (approximately 1/5 to 3/5 inch) difference between the lengths of their two lower extremities; this is a normal variation. Greater differences may need treatment because a discrepancy can affect a patient?s well being and quality of life.
An anatomical short leg is due to several orthopedic or medical condition mechanisms. Often, one leg simply stops growing before the other one does and is called ?congenital?. We often see mother-daughters or father-sons who exhibit virtually the same degree of shortness on the same side. Often it is not known why this occurs, but it seems to account for approximately 25% of the population demonstrating a true LLD. Other causes of a true LLD include trauma or broken bones, surgical repair, joint replacement, radiation exposure, tumors or Legg-Calves-Perthes disease.
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 systematic and well organized approach should be used in the diagnosis of LLD to ensure all relevant factors are considered and no clues are overlooked which could explain the difference. To determine the asymmetry a patient should be evaluated whilst standing and walking. During the process special care should be used to note the extent of pelvic shift from side to side and deviation along the plane of the front or leading leg as well as the traverse deviation of the back leg and abnormal curvature of the spine. Dynamic gait analysis should be conducted during waling where observation of movement on the sagittal, frontal and transverse planes should be noted. Also observe head, neck and shoulder movements for any tilting.
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.
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Limb deformity or leg length problems can be treated by applying an external frame to the leg. The frame consists of metal rings which go round the limb. The rings are held onto the body by wires and metal pins which pass through the skin and are anchored into the bone. During this operation, the bone is divided. Gradual adjustment of the frame results in creation of a new bone allowing a limb to be lengthened. The procedure involves the child having an anaesthetic. The child is normally in hospital for one week. The child and family are encouraged to clean pin sites around the limb. The adjustments of the frame (distractions) are performed by the child and/or family. The child is normally encouraged to walk on the operated limb and to actively exercise the joints above and below the frame. The child is normally reviewed on a weekly basis in clinic to monitor the correction of the deformity. The frame normally remains in place for 3 months up to one year depending on the condition which is being treated. The frame is normally removed under a general anaesthetic at the end of treatment.