Have you ever been told or noticed that one of your legs is a bit longer than the other? Do you have incidences of lower back pain? These two things could be related. Most individuals have a small difference in their leg lengths. For some, the discrepancy is small and negligible and will not be a contributor to lower back pain. This is usually the case for people if their leg length is less than 5 millimeters. However, a difference of leg lengths greater than 5 millimeters (1/4 inch) can contribute to lower back pain. If you have a leg length difference of greater than 9 mm, then you have a 6X greater likelihood of having an episode of lower back pain.
Some children are born with absence or underdeveloped bones in the lower limbs e.g., congenital hemimelia. Others have a condition called hemihypertrophy that causes one side of the body to grow faster than the other. Sometimes, increased blood flow to one limb (as in a hemangioma or blood vessel tumor) stimulates growth to the limb. In other cases, injury or infection involving the epiphyseal plate (growth plate) of the femur or tibia inhibits or stops altogether the growth of the bone. Fractures healing in an overlapped position, even if the epiphyseal plate is not involved, can also cause limb length discrepancy. Neuromuscular problems like polio can also cause profound discrepancies, but thankfully, uncommon. Lastly, Wilms? tumor of the kidney in a child can cause hypertrophy of the lower limb on the same side. It is therefore important in a young child with hemihypertrophy to have an abdominal ultrasound exam done to rule out Wilms? tumor. It is important to distinguish true leg length discrepancy from apparent leg length discrepancy. Apparent discrepancy is due to an instability of the hip, that allows the proximal femur to migrate proximally, or due to an adduction or abduction contracture of the hip that causes pelvic obliquity, so that one hip is higher than the other. When the patient stands, it gives the impression of leg length discrepancy, when the problem is actually in the hip.
Faulty feet and ankle structure profoundly affect leg length and pelvic positioning. The most common asymmetrical foot position is the pronated foot. Sensory receptors embedded on the bottom of the foot alert the brain to the slightest weight shift. Since the brain is always trying to maintain pelvic balance, when presented with a long left leg, it attempts to adapt to the altered weight shift by dropping the left medial arch (shortening the long leg) and supinating the right arch to lengthen the short leg.1 Left unchecked, excessive foot pronation will internally rotate the left lower extremity, causing excessive strain to the lateral meniscus and medial collateral knee ligaments. Conversely, excessive supination tends to externally rotate the leg and thigh, creating opposite knee, hip and pelvic distortions.
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
After the leg length discrepancy has been identified it can be categorized in as structural or functional and appropriate remedial action can be instigated. This may involve heel lifters or orthotics being used to level up the difference. The treatment of LLD depends on the symptoms being experienced. Where the body is naturally compensating for the LLD (and the patient is in no discomfort), further rectifying action may cause adverse effects to the biomechanical mechanism of the body causing further injury. In cases of functional asymmetry regular orthotics can be used to correct the geometry of the foot and ground contact. In structural asymmetry cases heel lifts may be used to compensate for the anatomic discrepancy.
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Surgical operations to equalize leg lengths include the following. Shortening the longer leg. This is usually done if growth is already complete, and the patient is tall enough that losing an inch is not a problem. Slowing or stopping the growth of the longer leg. Growth of the lower limbs take place mainly in the epiphyseal plates (growth plates) of the lower femur and upper tibia and fibula. Stapling the growth plates in a child for a few years theoretically will stop growth for the period, and when the staples were removed, growth was supposed to resume. This procedure was quite popular till it was found that the amount of growth retarded was not certain, and when the staples where removed, the bone failed to resume its growth. Hence epiphyseal stapling has now been abandoned for the more reliable Epiphyseodesis. By use of modern fluoroscopic equipment, the surgeon can visualize the growth plate, and by making small incisions and using multiple drillings, the growth plate of the lower femur and/or upper tibia and fibula can be ablated. Since growth is stopped permanently by this procedure, the timing of the operation is crucial. This is probably the most commonly done procedure for correcting leg length discrepancy. But there is one limitation. The maximum amount of discrepancy that can be corrected by Epiphyseodesis is 5 cm. Lengthening the short leg. Various procedures have been done over the years to effect this result. External fixation devices are usually needed to hold the bone that is being lengthened. In the past, the bone to be lengthened was cut, and using the external fixation device, the leg was stretched out gradually over weeks. A gap in the bone was thus created, and a second operation was needed to place a bone block in the gap for stability and induce healing as a graft. More recently, a new technique called callotasis is being use. The bone to be lengthened is not cut completely, only partially and called a corticotomy. The bone is then distracted over an external device (usually an Ilizarov or Orthofix apparatus) very slowly so that bone healing is proceeding as the lengthening is being done. This avoids the need for a second procedure to insert bone graft. The procedure involved in leg lengthening is complicated, and fraught with risks. Theoretically, there is no limit to how much lengthening one can obtain, although the more ambitious one is, the higher the complication rate.