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.
The causes of LLD may be divided into those that shorten a limb versus those that lengthen a limb, or they may be classified as affecting the length versus the rate of growth in a limb. For example, a fracture that heals poorly may shorten a leg slightly, but does not affect its growth rate. Radiation, on the other hand, can affect a leg's long-term ability to expand, but does not acutely affect its length. Causes that shorten the leg are more common than those that lengthen it and include congenital growth deficiencies (seen in hemiatrophy and skeletal dysplasias ), infections that infiltrate the epiphysis (e.g. osteomyelitis ), tumors, fractures that occur through the growth plate or have overriding ends, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE), and radiation. Lengthening can result from unique conditions, such as hemihypertrophy , in which one or more structures on one side of the body become larger than the other side, vascular malformations or tumors (such as hemangioma ), which cause blood flow on one side to exceed that of the other, Wilm's tumor (of the kidney), septic arthritis, healed fractures, or orthopaedic surgery. Leg length discrepancy may arise from a problem in almost any portion of the femur or tibia. For example, fractures can occur at virtually all levels of the two bones. Fractures or other problems of the fibula do not lead to LLD, as long as the more central, weight-bearing tibia is unaffected. Because many cases of LLD are due to decreased rate of growth, the femoral or tibial epiphyses are commonly affected regions.
Back pain along with pain in the foot, knee, leg and hip on one side of the body are the main complaints. There may also be limping or head bop down on the short side or uneven arm swinging. The knee bend, hip or shoulder may be down on one side, and there may be uneven wear to the soles of shoes (usually more on the longer side).
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
Whether or not treatment should be pursued depends on the amount of discrepancy. In general, no treatment (other than a heel life, if desired) should be considered for discrepancies under two centimeters. If the discrepancy measures between two and five centimeters, one might consider a procedure to equalize leg length. Usually, this would involve closure of the growth plate on the long side, thereby allowing the short side to catch up; shortening the long leg; or possibly lengthening the short leg.
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The type of surgery depends on the type of problem. Outpatient procedures may be used to alter the growth of the limb. This is often done through small incisions. If an outpatient procedure is done, your child can continue with most regular activities. Other times, surgery may be very involved and require the use of an external device that is attached to the limb with pins and wires. This device may be left on for months to correct the deformity or lengthen the leg. If this type of surgery is required, your child will be making weekly visits to Cincinnati Children's.