Health Beat: Unexpected consequences from hip surgery: Uneven limbs

Health Beat: Unexpected consequences from hip surgery

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

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

Chuck Westendorf had a huge difference in the length of his legs just after a total hip replacement surgery; imagine a 1-½ inch difference in his limbs.

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

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

"It's a growing problem and a growing surgical procedure," said Dr. Henry Finn, 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.

Finn said 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 is to know your surgeon's 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?" Finn said.

He also said that if there is a problem, early intervention is critical.

Westendorf went to see Finn just a few weeks after his surgery at another hospital.

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

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

"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 his wife, Gwen Westendorf.

Now, he's 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, 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, which can make standing or sitting nearly impossible.

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