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Leg Length Discrepancy

What is it?

Leg length discrepancy (LLD) or Lower limb discrepancy is a condition of unequal lengths of the lower limbs. The discrepancy may be in the femur, or tibia, or both. In some conditions, the whole side is affected, including the upper limbs. However, it is the discrepancy of the lower limbs that causes problems with ambulation, and the focus of this discussion will be about lower limb discrepancy.

What causes it?

Leg Length Discrepancy

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.

What are the symptoms?

Many people walk around with LLD’s of up to 2 cm. and not even know it.

However, discrepancies above 2 cm. becomes more noticeable, and a slight limp is present. But even up to 3 cm. a small lift compensates very well, and many patients are quite happy with this arrangement.

Beyond 3 cm. however, the limp is quite pronounced, and medical care is often sought at that point.

Walking with a short leg gait is not only unsightly, but increases energy expenditure during ambulation. It could also put more stress on the long leg, and causes functional scoliosis.

Where the discrepancy is more severe, walking becomes grotesque or virtually impossible.

What does your doctor do about it?

The key to treatment of LLD in a child is to predict what the discrepancy is at maturity. If it is predicted to be less than 2 cm., no treatment is needed. Limb length discrepancies of up to 2 or 2.5 cm. can be compensated very well with a lift in the shoe. Beyond 2.5 cm., it becomes increasingly difficult to compensate with a left in the insole. Building up the shoe becomes uncosmetic and cumbersome, and some other way of compensating for the discrepancy becomes necessary.

Surgical operations to equalize leg lengths include the following:

  1. 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.
  2. Epiphyseodesis

  3. 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.
  4. Leg Lengthening

  5. 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.

There are several ways your doctor can predict the final LLD, and thus the timing of the surgery. The easiest way is the so-called Australian method, popularised by Dr. Malcolm Menelaus, an Australian orthopedic surgeon. According to this method, growth in girls is estimated to stop at age 14, and in boys at age 16 years. The femur grows at the rate of 10 mm. a year, and the upper tibia at the rate of 6 mm. a year. Using simple arithmetic, one can get a fairly good prediction of future growth. This of course, is an average, and the patient may be an average. To cut down the risk of this, the doctor usually measures leg length using special X-ray technique (called a Scanogram) on three occasions over at least one year duration to estimate growth per year. He may also do an X-ray of the left hand to estimate the bone age (which in some cases may differ from chronological age) by comparing it with an atlas of bone age. In most cases, however, the bone age and chronological age are quite close.

Another method of predicting final LLD is by using Anderson and Green’s remaining growth charts. This is a very cumbersome method, but was till the 1970’s, the only method of predicting remaining growth. More recently, however, a much more convenient method of predicting LLD was discovered by Dr. Colin Moseley from Montreal. His technique of using straight line graphs to plot growth of leg lengths is now the most widely used method of predicting leg length discrepancy.

Whatever method your doctor uses, over a period of one or two years, once he has a good idea of the final LLD, he can then formulate a plan to equalize leg lengths. Epiphyseodesis is usually done in the last 2 to 3 years of growth, giving a maximum correction of about 5 cm. Leg lengthening can be done at any age, and can give corrections of 5 to10 cm., or more.

What can be expected after treatment?

The treatment of LLD is long-term treatment, and involves the physician and patient’s family working together as a team. The family needs to weigh the various options available. If leg lengthening is decided on, the family needs to understand the commitment necessary to see it through. The treatment takes 6 months to a year for completion, and complications can happen. But when it works, the results are gratifying.


NOTICE: The information presented is for your information only, and not a substitute for the medical advice of a qualified physician. Neither the author nor the publisher will be responsible for any harm or injury resulting from interpretations of the materials in this article.

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