Correcting uneven limbs after hip replacement

February 8, 2014 7:31:01 AM PST
It's one of the most troublesome and yet little known problems that occur after total hip replacement: Thousands of patients left with one leg longer than the other.

"You could walk, but almost it was like a pogo stick," said patient Chuck Westendorf.

More than 300,000 hip replacement surgeries are performed each year, and by 2030 that number is expected to nearly double.

But as those numbers grow, so do the chances of complications, like one leg being longer or shorter than the other.

Imagine a one-and-a-half inch difference in limbs.

"I knew I couldn't live like that," said Westendorf.

And he's not alone. Studies show leg length inequalities are a preventable mistake that account for nearly 5 percent of all medical errors.

"It's a growing problem and a growing surgical procedure," said Dr. Henry Finn, University of Chicago, Weiss Memorial Hospital.

Hip revisionist Doctor Finn says about a third of hip replacement patients will have an obvious difference in lengths, which may lead to hip and back pain.

His best advice: know your surgeons level of experience and ask the right questions.

"What do they do to assure that their leg lengths are going to be as close as possible?" he said.

If there is a problem, "early intervention is critical in these situations," Dr. Finn added.

Chuck came to see Dr. Finn just a few weeks after his surgery at another hospital.

"The leg is over lengthened; the femur is pushed down," said Dr. Finn.

"I feel just blessed, being able to have an opportunity to live a normal day," said Chuck Westendorf.

"It's overwhelming. It brings tears to our eyes every time. We just feel like we owe his life to Dr. Finn for what he did for him," said Gwen Westendorf, Chuck's wife.

Now, Chuck is free to walk tall again.

In some cases, a heel lift may be all that's needed to fix a minor discrepancy in leg length. If it's an obvious difference, Dr. Finn recommends having revision surgery within the first six weeks, if possible, so the bone hasn't had a chance to fuse.

Other complications from hip replacement surgery include chronic back pain, shoulder pain, hip dislocation, and sciatica -- that can make standing or sitting nearly impossible.


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