Leg lengthening

Leg lengthening is a process that can be used at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) when someone has one leg significantly longer than the other. It’s quite a time consuming process and can be uncomfortable but it is often very successful. 

There are lots of reasons why someone could have one leg longer than the other. Usually, the shorter leg is abnormal but sometimes it’s the longer one that has the problem. 

Some children are born with one leg shorter than the other (congenital) but others get a short leg after the growth plates at the ends of the leg bones are damaged. Young people with any of these conditions might be helped by a leg equalisation process.

Very rarely, a leg can grow longer than usual after the thighbone or shinbone is fractured or broken. In most cases there is only a small difference between the length of the different legs, in which case leg lengthening is not the first treatment of choice.

How it works

Leg lengthening takes advantage of the bone's ability to heal itself by making more bone when it is broken. An operation is done where the leg bones are broken. Afterwards a frame is applied to support the leg. Then the bone starts to mend. As it mends, the ends are slowly and gradually pulled apart so that every day the body has a bit more of a gap to fill with new bone.

Once the required length is reached, the new bone must be given time to grow stronger. The bone in the gap is initially quite immature and needs time to solidify. When this has happened the frame can be removed.

Stretching the bone can sometimes be the easy part – it is often more difficult to persuade the muscles to stay stretched, supple and strong. If they don’t then the joints can become stiff too.

Does it hurt?

Leg lengthening takes a long time and can be quite uncomfortable.

While the leg is in the frame we encourage you to walk and play as normally as possible. You can still do most things like play football, ride a bike and go swimming but it can be quite difficult. Exercise and physiotherapy are a very important part of the process and they are essential for keeping the joints and muscles in the leg strong.

Compiled by:
Great Ormond Street Hospital
Last review date:
January 2012