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.
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.
Often there are few or no symptoms prior to the age of 25-35. The most common symptom is chronic lower back pain, but also is frequently middle and upper back pain. Same-sided and repeated injury or pain to the hip, knee and/or ankle is also a hallmark of a long-standing untreated LLD. It is not uncommon to have buttock or radiating hip pain that is non-dermatomal (not from a disc) and tends to go away when lying down.
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
The way in which we would treat a LLD would depend on whether we have an anatomical or functional difference. To determine which one is causing the LLD you will need to get your legs measured. This is the easiest way to determine if it is anatomical or functional. With a functional LLD we must first determine the cause and treat the cause. Should the cause be one that is not correctable then we may need to treat the LLD as if it were an anatomical or may have to treat the opposite leg to improve one's gait. As for the anatomical LLD, we may start off with a heel lift only in the shoe and follow up to see if we will need to put the lift full sole on the bottom of the shoe. This is determined by the affects that a heel lift in one shoe may have on that knee. Should the LLD be more than 1/4 inch we usually recommend starting between 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch less than the actual amount and let the body adjust to the change and then raise up to the measured amount later.
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Bone growth restriction (epiphysiodesis) The objective of this surgical procedure is to slow down growth in the longer leg. During surgery, doctors alter the growth plate of the bone in the longer leg by inserting a small plate or staples. This slows down growth, allowing the shorter leg to catch up over time. Your child may spend a night in the hospital after this procedure or go home the same day. Doctors may place a knee brace on the leg for a few days. It typically takes 2 to 3 months for the leg to heal completely. An alternative approach involves lengthening the shorter bone. We are more likely to recommend this approach if your child is on the short side of the height spectrum.