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Common Congenital Limb Defects

by Simeon A. Boyadjiev Boyd, MD

Congenital limb defects involve missing, incomplete, supernumerary, or abnormally developed limbs present at birth.

Limb deficiencies

Congenital limb amputations and deficiencies are missing or incomplete limbs at birth. The overall prevalence is 7.9/10,000 live births. Most are due to primary intrauterine growth inhibition, or disruptions secondary to intrauterine destruction of normal embryonic tissues. The upper extremities are more commonly affected.

Congenital limb deficiencies have many causes and often occur as a component of various congenital syndromes. Teratogenic agents (eg, thalidomide, vitamin A) are known causes of hypoplastic/absent limbs. The most common cause of congenital limb amputations are vascular disruption defects, such as amniotic band-related limb deficiency, in which loose strands of amnion entangle or fuse with fetal tissue.

Limb deficiencies can be

  • Longitudinal (more common)

  • Transverse

Longitudinal deficiencies involve specific maldevelopments (eg, complete or partial absence of the radius, fibula, or tibia). Radial ray deficiency is the most common upper-limb deficiency, and hypoplasia of the fibula is the most common lower-limb deficiency. About two thirds of cases are associated with other congenital disorders, including Adams-Oliver syndrome (aplasia cutis congenita with partial aplasia of the skull bones and terminal transverse limb malformations), Holt-Oram syndrome, TAR syndrome ( t hrombocytopenia- a bsent r adius), and VACTERL ( v ertebral anomalies, a nal atresia, c ardiac malformations, t racheo e sophageal fistula, r enal anomalies and r adial aplasia, and l imb anomalies).

In transverse deficiencies , all elements beyond a certain level are absent, and the limb resembles an amputation stump. Amniotic bands are the most common cause; the degree of deficiency varies based on the location of the band, and typically, there are no other defects or anomalies. The remaining cases are mostly due to underlying genetic syndromes such as Adams-Oliver syndrome or chromosomal abnormalities.

With transverse or longitudinal deficiency, depending on the etiology, infants may also have hypoplastic or bifid bones, synostoses, duplications, dislocations, or other bony defects; eg, in proximal femoral focal deficiency, the proximal femur and acetabulum do not develop. One or more limbs may be affected, and the type of defect may be different in each limb. CNS abnormalities are rare.


Polydactyly is supernumerary digits and is the most frequent congenital limb deformity. This deformity is classified as preaxial, central, and postaxial.

Preaxial polydactyly is an extra thumb or great toe. The manifestations range from a broad or duplicated distal phalange to complete duplication of the digit. It may occur in isolation, possibly with autosomal dominant inheritance, or it may be part of certain genetic syndromes, including acrocallosal syndrome (with developmental delay and corpus callosum defects), Carpenter and Pfeiffer syndromes (with craniosynostosis), Fanconi and Diamond-Blackfan anemias, and Holt-Oram syndrome (with congenital heart defects).

Central polydactyly is rare and involves duplication of the ring, middle, index fingers. It can be associated with syndactyly and cleft hand. The majority of cases are syndromic.

Postaxial polydactyly is most common and involves an extra digit on the ulnar/fibular side of the limb. Most commonly, the extra finger is rudimentary, but it can be completely developed. In people of African descent, this type of polydactyly is usually an isolated defect. In other populations, it is more often associated with a syndrome of multiple congenital anomalies or chromosomal defects. Among the syndromes to be considered are Greig cephalopolysyndactyly syndrome, Meckel syndrome, Ellis-van Creveld syndrome, McKusick-Kaufman syndrome, Down syndrome, and Bardet-Biedl syndrome.


Syndactyly is webbing or fusion of fingers or toes. Several different types are defined, and the majority follow an autosomal dominant inheritance pattern. Simple syndactyly involves only fusion of the soft tissue, whereas complex syndactyly also involves fusion of the bones. Complex syndactyly is present in Apert syndrome (with craniosynostosis). Syndactyly of the ring and the small fingers is common in oculo-dento-digital dysplasia. Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome manifests with syndactyly of the 2nd and 3rd toes along with multiple other congenital anomalies.


  • Usually x-rays

  • Sometimes genetic testing

Typically, x-rays are done to determine which bones are involved. When defects appear to be familial or if a genetic syndrome is suspected, evaluation should also include a thorough assessment for other physical, chromosomal, and genetic abnormalities. When available, assessment by a clinical geneticist is useful.


  • Prosthetic devices

Treatment consists mainly of prosthetic devices, which are most valuable for lower-limb deficiencies and for completely or almost completely absent upper limbs. If any activity in an arm or hand exists, no matter how great the malformation, functioning capacity must be thoroughly assessed before a prosthesis or surgical procedure is recommended. Therapeutic amputation of any limb or portion of a limb should be considered only after evaluating the functional and psychologic implications of the loss and when amputation is essential for fitting a prosthesis.

An upper-limb prosthesis should be designed to serve as many needs as possible so that the number of devices is kept to a minimum. Children use a prosthesis most successfully when it is fitted early and becomes an integral part of their body and body image during the developmental years. Devices used during infancy should be as simple and durable as possible; eg, a hook rather than a bioelectric arm. With effective orthopedic and ancillary support, most children with congenital amputations lead normal lives.

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