Leg length difference (LLD) is primarily when the hips are not level, causing a limp from side to side. Most practitioners divide LLD into anatomical or functional. Anatomical is when there is a true difference in the length of the tibia/fibula or the femur bone, or both. While functional LLD are either the shortening or lengthening of a limb, secondary to joint contracture or muscle imbalances.
There are many causes of leg length discrepancy. Structural inequality is due to interference of normal bone growth of the lower extremity, which can occur from trauma or infection in a child. Functional inequality has many causes, including Poliomyelitis or other paralytic deformities can retard bone growth in children. Contracture of the Iliotibial band. Scoliosis or curvature of the spine. Fixed pelvic obliquity. Abduction or flexion contraction of the hip. Flexion contractures or other deformities of the knee. Foot deformities.
In addition to the distinctive walk of a person with leg length discrepancy, over time, other deformities may be noted, which help compensate for the condition. Toe walking on the short side to decrease the swaying during gait. The foot will supinate (high arch) on the shorter side. The foot will pronate (flattening of the arch) on the longer side. Excessive pronation leads to hypermobility and instability, resulting in metatarsus primus varus and associated unilateral juvenile hallux valgus (bunion) deformity.
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
The non-surgical intervention is mainly usedfor the functional and environmental types of leg length discrepancies. It is also applied to the mild category of limb length inequality. Non-surgical intervention consists of stretching the muscles of the lower extremity. This is individually different, whereby the M. Tensor Fascia latae, the adductors, the hamstring muscles, M. piriformis and M. Iliopsoas are stretched. In this non-surgical intervention belongs also the use of shoe lifts. These shoe lifts consists of either a shoe insert (up to 10-20mm of correction), or building up the sole of the shoe on the shorter leg (up to 30-60mm of correction). This lift therapy should be implemented gradually in small increments. Several studies have examined the treatment of low back pain patients with LLD with shoe lifts. Gofton obtained good results: the patients experienced major or complete pain relief that lasted upon follow-up ranging from 3 to 11 years. Helliwell also observed patients whereby 44% experienced complete pain relief, and 45% had moderate or substantial pain relief. Friberg found that 157 (of 211) patients with LBP, treated with shoe lifts, were symprom-free after a mean follow-up of 18 months.
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.