Surgeries for LLD are designed to do one of three general things ? shorten the long leg, stop or slow the growth of the longer or more rapidly growing leg, or lengthen the short leg. Stopping the growth of the longer leg is the most commonly utilized of the three approaches and involves an operation known as an epiphysiodesis , in which the growth plate of either the lower femur or upper tibia is visualized in the operating room using fluoroscopy (a type of real-time radiographic imaging) and ablated , which involves drilling into the region several times, such that the tissue is no longer capable of bone growth. Because the epiphyseal growth capabilities cannot be restored following the surgery, proper timing is crucial. Usually the operation is planned for the last 2 to 3 years of growth and has excellent results, with children leaving the hospital within a few days with good mobility. However, it is only appropriate for LLD of under 5cm.
Common causes include bone infection, bone diseases, previous injuries, or broken bones. Other causes may include birth defects, arthritis where there is a loss of articular surface, or neurological conditions.
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.
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
In an adult, we find that we can add a non compressive silicone heel lift to a shoe in increments of 3-4 mm maximum per week. Were we to give a patient with a 20 mm short leg, 20 mm of lift all at once, their entire body would rebel. The various compensations that the body has made, such as curvatures and shortening of muscles on the convex side of the curve, would make such a dramatic change not just noticeable, but painful. When we get close to balancing a patient by lifting a leg with heel inserts, then we perform another gait analysis and follow up xray. At that point, we can typically write them a final prescription to have their shoe modified. A heel lift is typically fine up to 7 mm. When it gets higher than that, the entire shoe must be modified. There are two reasons for this. The back of the shoe is generally too short to accommodate more than 7-8 mm inserted inside the shoes and a heel lift greater than 7 mm will lead to Achilles tendon shortening, which then creates it?s own panoply of problems.
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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.