CHICAGO (Jan. 2, 2014) — Chuck Westendorf of Peoria, Ill., still remembers the horrifying feeling of having “uneven legs” after hip replacement surgery.“I knew immediately something was wrong,” Westendorf said. “It was as if I grew almost two inches. When I sat, you could see my right knee was about two inches longer.”
This was the 67-year-old’s second hip surgery in three years – the first for a labrum tear and the second for a total hip replacement. “I lost three years of my life,” said the retired teacher and basketball coach. Prior to his hip problems, Westendorf filled his days walking three to four miles, playing golf, vacationing with his wife and playing with his grandson.
His health problems had taken a toll – physically, emotionally and mentally. The pain kept intensifying, with pinched tissue in his hip causing pain with every step.
Westendorf isn’t alone. As hip replacement surgeries become more common, a growing number of patients are left with grossly “uneven limbs.” According to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, leg length inequalities are a preventable mistake that accounts for nearly five percent of all medical errors. Discrepancies beyond three-fifths of an inch can greatly impact a patient’s well-being and life, says the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). Complications include chronic back pain, shoulder pain, hip dislocation and sciatica—excruciating leg pain that makes standing or sitting nearly impossible.
Westendorf shared his story on Facebook, and soon found his situation improving. A college friend saw his post and referred him to a surgeon who specializes in complex revision surgeries – Henry Finn, M.D., chief of surgery at Weiss Memorial Hospital, medical director of the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss, and professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Chicago.
“Mr. Westendorf was considered a high risk patient,” Dr. Finn said. “He was recovering from a superficial staph infection and a few weeks into healing from his primary hip replacement at another hospital. Still, I knew I could even out his right leg.”
Using a specialized surgical technique, Dr. Finn corrected the over lengthening and got Westendorf walking tall again. In most cases, the surgery requires the removal of the femoral component and a re-implant of a new one deeper in the femur to shorten the limb. In some cases, like Westendorf’s, a special socket also is required to prevent a dislocation of the hip from the lack of support due to overstretched tissue.
“Mr. Westendorf was fortunate he didn’t wait to correct the problem,” Finn said. Correcting leg length inequality is much less complicated if performed within six weeks of the first procedure. Early intervention is preferred.
“If the patient thinks something is wrong, they should seek a second opinion as soon as possible,” Finn said. “If the implant becomes well-fixed to the bone, often the patient is advised to accept the inequity and use a shoe lift.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 300,000 total hip replacement surgeries were performed in the U.S. in 2010. By the year 2030, the AAOS predicts that number to rise by 75 percent to 572,000. Right now, about 10 percent of hip replacements are “revision” surgeries.
“Though hip revision surgeries bring with them an increased risk of complications, more than 90 percent of patients who undergo revision procedures have good to excellent results,” Dr. Finn said.
Now, Westendorf can count himself as one of those success stories. “After surgery with Dr. Finn, I was like I used to be with the first step I took,” said Westendorf, who is back to walking three to four miles a day. “Dr. Finn literally gave me my life back.”
Westendorf wants others to know that there’s hope for overcoming uneven limbs. He suggests they be persistent in finding a good surgeon who is thorough and confident in correcting the leg inequity. He also advises that people seek out a surgeon sooner rather than later.
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