The bone is lengthened by surgically applying an external fixation device to the leg. 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 the frame creates tension when the patient or family member turns its dial. This is done several times each day. The lengthening process begins approximately five to 10 days after surgery. The bone may lengthen 1 millimeter per day, or approximately 1 inch per month. Lengthening may be slower in a bone that was previously injured. It may also be slower if the leg was operated on before. Bones in patients with potential blood vessel abnormalities, such as cigarette smokers, may also need to be lengthened more slowly. The external fixator is worn until the bone is strong enough to support the patient safely. This usually takes about three months for each inch. Factors such as age, health, smoking and participation in rehabilitation can affect the amount of time needed.
Leg length discrepancies can be caused by poor alignment of the pelvis or simply because one leg is structurally longer than the other. Regardless of the reason, your body wants to be symmetrical and will do its best to compensate for the length difference. The greater the leg length difference, the earlier the symptoms will present themselves to the patient. Specific diagnoses that coincide with leg length discrepancy include: scoliosis, lumbar herniated discs, sacroiliitis, pelvic obiliquity, greater trochanteric bursitis, hip arthritis, piriformis syndrome, patellofemoral syndrome and foot pronation. Other potential causes could be due to an injury (such as a fracture), bone disease, bone tumors, congenital problems (present at birth) or from a neuromuscular problem.
Children whose limbs vary in length often experience difficulty using their arms or legs. They might have difficulty walking or using both arms to engage in everyday activities.
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
Treatment of leg length inequality involves many different approaches, which vary among osteopaths, physiotherapist and chiropractor and whether the LLD is functional or structural. Thus is a combination of myofascial release (massage) & stretching of shortened muscles. Manipulation or mobilization of the spine, sacro-iliac joint (SIJ), hip, knee, foot. Orthotics, shoe lifts can be used to treat discrepancies from two to six cm (usually up to 1 cm can be inserted in the shoe. For larger leg length inequalities, the shoe must be built up. This needs to be done for every shoe worn, thus limiting the type of shoe that the patient can wear). Surgery (epiphysiodesis, epiphyseal stapling,bone resection).
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Shortening techniques can be used after skeletal maturity to achieve leg length equality. Shortening can be done in the proximal femur using a blade plate or hip screw, in the mid-diaphysis of the femur using a closed intramedullary (IM) technique, or in the tibia. Shortening is an accurate technique and involves a much shorter convalescence than lengthening techniques. Quadriceps weakness may occur with femoral shortenings, especially if a mid-diaphyseal shortening of greater than 10% is done. If the femoral shortening is done proximally, no significant weakness should result. Tibial shortening can be done, but there may be a residual bulkiness to the leg, and risks of nonunion and compartment syndrome are higher. If a tibial shortening is done, shortening over an IM nail and prophylactic compartment release are recommended. We limit the use of shortenings to 4 to 5 cm leg length inequality in patients who are skeletally mature.