This procedure corrects a leg length difference. With surgery and devices, a bone can be lengthened over a period of time. The process triggers bone growth and soft tissue lengthening.
Reasons for Procedure
Lengthening may be needed if you have a length difference due to:
- Trauma, such as a leg fracture
- Bone infection
- Congenital defect or other condition that affects your bone growth, such as Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome
- Short stature, such as dwarfism
- Cerebral palsy
If the difference is not corrected, it can cause excess strain on joints. You could have pain in your knee, hip, or ankle. You may develop osteoarthritis and back pain.
Correcting the problem can help improve walking and reduce your risk of other problems. Depending on the technique, several inches may be added.
Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:
- Excess bleeding
- Adverse reaction to anesthesia
- Infection (may be around the pins or wires that are inserted during the procedure)
- Blood clots
- Nausea and vomiting
- Joint stiffness
- Bone length may not be exact, such as longer or shorter than planned
- Muscle contraction (muscle shortens)
- Nerve injury
- Problems with the new bone forming
Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors that may increase your risk of complications such as:
- Chronic disease such as diabetes or obesity
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
Your doctor may do the following:
- A physical exam
- Measure your legs
- Take x-rays
Before the surgery:
- You may be asked to stop taking some medications up to one week before the procedure.
- Avoid eating or drinking after midnight the night before surgery.
Description of the Procedure
This procedure will be done in stages. The first stage is a procedure called an osteotomy. The doctor will make an incision in the leg and cut the bone. The doctor will select a fixation device for the leg. This will stabilize the bone while it is being lengthened. Options include:
- External fixation device—This framed device is positioned around the leg. Pins and wires are placed through the skin and tissue to reach the bone and lengthen it. Some have a dial attached to the frame. This dial is turned to slowly lengthen the bone.
- Internal fixation device—This is placed inside the leg. It is positioned on the bone. Some of these devices have a nail with a tool that automatically lengthens the bone. In other cases, it is used with the external device.
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Lengthening will be done at a rate of about 1 mm (millimeter) per day. This stage may start a few days or weeks after the osteotomy and last for a couple of months. Depending on your device, you will adjust it several times during the day. Your body will slowly regenerate new bone in the small space that was created between the bone ends.
During the next stage, your bone will heal. You will be able to put more weight on your limb. X-rays will be taken. When the healing process is completed, the fixation devices will be removed.
How Long Will It Take?
The osteotomy can take about 2 hours. This depends on the extent of the surgery.
The lengthening process can take 2-3 months.
How Much Will It Hurt?
Anesthesia prevents pain during surgery. Your doctor will give you pain medicine after surgery. You may have discomfort from the fixation devices.
Average Hospital Stay
The surgery is done in a hospital. The usual length of stay is 1-3 days.
At the Hospital
At the hospital, the staff will:
- Give medication to prevent blood clots
- Have you breathe deeply and cough regularly to prevent fluid build-up in the lungs
- Encourage you to get out of bed and walk using crutches or a walker
- Have you start physical therapy the day after surgery
- Teach you how to adjust the fixation devices
- Teach you how to care for the pin and wire sites for an external fixation device
During your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection such as:
- Washing their hands
- Wearing gloves or masks
- Keeping your incisions covered
There are also steps you can take to reduce your chances of infection such as:
- Washing your hands often and reminding visitors and healthcare providers to do the same
- Reminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masks
- Not allowing others to touch your incisions
Leg lengthening will take place at home. For a smooth recovery:
- Use crutches or a walker. Do not put weight on your leg until your doctor gives you permission.
- If you have a device that needs to be adjusted, carefully adjust it throughout the day as instructed.
- Keep the external fixation device clean, especially around the pins and wires, to prevent infection.
- Work with a physical therapist. They will focus on stretching and strengthening your leg.
- Follow your doctor's instructions.
The entire process can take up to 6 months.
Call Your Doctor
Contact your doctor if any of the following occurs:
- Signs of infection, such as fever, chills
- Redness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or discharge around the incision or pin and wire sites
- Pain and/or swelling in the feet, calves, or legs
- Pain that you cannot control with the medication you were given
- Cough, shortness of breath, chest pain
- Severe nausea or vomiting
- Numbness, tingling, or loss of feeling in your leg, knee, or foot
- Problems or concerns about the fixation devices
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
American Orthopaedic Association
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
The Arthritis Society
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
Limb length discrepancy. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00259. Updated May 2016. Accessed November 13, 2017.
Limb lengthening. International Deformity and Lengthening Institute website. Available at: http://www.ilizarov.org/ll.pdf. Accessed November 13, 2017.
Limb lengthening. Scottish Rite Hospital for Children website. Available at: http://www.tsrhc.org/limb-lengthening. Accessed November 13, 2017.
Paley D. Limb lengthening introduction. Limb Lengthening.us website. Available at: http://www.limblengtheningdoc.org/limb_lengthening_intro.html. Accessed November 13, 2017.
Rozbruch R. Limb lengthening: An overview. Hospital for Special Surgery website. Available at: http://www.hss.edu/conditions_limb-lengthening-overview.asp. Updated September 22, 2009. Accessed November 13, 2017.
Last reviewed November 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM Last Updated: 12/20/2014