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Have you noticed that your pants always fit a little weird or that you are always leaning to one leg when standing for awhile? If so, one of your legs may be longer than the other. This is known as a leg length discrepancy. There are two main reasons for a leg length discrepancy. One reason is that one of your leg bones (tibia or femur) is longer on one side. This is referred to as a true leg length discrepancy because the actual length of your bones is different. A second reason is that your pelvic bone may be rotated on one side making it appear that one leg is longer than the other. This is referred to as an apparent leg length discrepancy because the actual length of your leg bones is not different. In order to figure out if you have a true or apparent leg length discrepancy, your doctor may take an x-ray to measure the length of your leg bones or a simple measurement from your belly button to your ankle can help determine the reason. Over time, the leg length difference can cause stress on your low back, hips and knees, which may cause pain or discomfort.
Leg length discrepancies can be caused by: hip and knee replacements, lower limb injuries, bone diseases, neuromuscular issues and congenital problems. Although discrepancies of 2 cm or less are most common, discrepancies can be greater than 6 cm. People who have LLD tend to make up for the difference by over bending their longer leg or standing on the toes of their shorter leg. This compensation leads to an inefficient, up and down gait, which is quite tiring and over time can result in posture problems as well as pain in the back, hips, knees and ankles.
If your child has one leg that is longer than the other, you may notice that he or she bends one leg. Stands on the toes of the shorter leg. Limps. The shorter leg has to be pushed upward, leading to an exaggerated up and down motion during walking. Tires easily. It takes more energy to walk with a discrepancy.
Leg length discrepancy may be diagnosed during infancy or later in childhood, depending on the cause. Conditions such as hemihypertrophy or hemiatrophy are often diagnosed following standard newborn or infant examinations by a pediatrician, or anatomical asymmetries may be noticed by a child's parents. For young children with hemihypertophy as the cause of their LLD, it is important that they receive an abdominal ultrasound of the kidneys to insure that Wilm's tumor, which can lead to hypertrophy in the leg on the same side, is not present. In older children, LLD is frequently first suspected due to the emergence of a progressive limp, warranting a referral to a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon. The standard workup for LLD is a thorough physical examination, including a series of measurements of the different portions of the lower extremities with the child in various positions, such as sitting and standing. The orthopaedic surgeon will observe the child while walking and performing other simple movements or tasks, such as stepping onto a block. In addition, a number of x-rays of the legs will be taken, so as to make a definitive diagnosis and to assist with identification of the possible etiology (cause) of LLD. Orthopaedic surgeons will compare x-rays of the two legs to the child's age, so as to assess his/her skeletal age and to obtain a baseline for the possibility of excessive growth rate as a cause. A growth chart, which compares leg length to skeletal age, is a simple but essential tool used over time to track the progress of the condition, both before and after treatment. Occasionally, a CT scan or MRI is required to further investigate suspected causes or to get more sophisticated radiological pictures of bone or soft tissue.
Non Surgical Treatment
In some circumstances, the physician will recommend a non-surgical form of treatment. Non-surgical treatments include orthotics and prosthetics. Orthotics are a special type of lift placed in or on a shoe that can be used in the treatment of leg length discrepancies between two and six centimeters. In pediatric patients who have large discrepancies and are not good candidates for other treatment forms, prosthetics can be helpful.
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.
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