Limp in a Child

This is an infrequent but alarming presentation, as it may herald significant pathology and may be difficult to manage properly in an uncooperative toddler. Assessment should be methodical and patient, and follow-up arranged unless the diagnosis is obvious at the outset.

Published: 2nd August 2022 | Updated: 15th August 2022

Differential diagnosis

Common Diagnoses

  • Trauma, Including Foreign Body in Foot (Especially Toddlers)
  • Irritable Hip (Transient Synovitis)
  • Acute Viral Infection with Arthralgia
  • Pauciarticular Juvenile Chronic Arthritis (JCA: 1 in 1000)
  • Slipped Femoral Epiphysis (Usually Over 10 Years Old)

Occasional Diagnoses

  • Perthes’s Disease (1 in 2000 between 4 and 10 Years Old)
  • Septic Arthritis
  • Idiopathic Scoliosis
  • Congenital Dislocation of the Hip
  • Acute Lower Abdominal Pain: Especially Appendicitis
  • Unequal Leg Length
  • Neurological (e.g. Cerebral Palsy)

Rare Diagnoses

  • Acute Osteomyelitis
  • Rheumatic Fever
  • Autoimmune Disorders (e.g. SLE, Dermatomyositis)
  • Rickets
  • Genuine Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Malignancy Affecting Bone
  • Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy

Ready reckoner

Key distinguishing features of the most common diagnoses

TraumaIrritable HipViral InfectionJCASlipped Epiphysis
Sudden OnsetYesPossiblePossibleNoYes
Stiff in Early MorningNoNoNoYesNo
Usually Over 10 Years OldNoNoNoNoYes
Many Joints AffectedNoNoYesPossibleNo

Possible investigations

Likely: FBC, ESR/CRP, X-ray.

Possible: Autoimmune screen.

Small Print: Calcium, phosphate, alkaline phosphatase, creatine kinase, ASO titre, blood culture.

  • FBC and ESR/CRP: WCC and ESR/CRP elevated in an underlying inflammatory or infective cause.
  • Hip X-ray: May reveal fracture, slipped femoral epiphysis, congenital dislocation, Perthes’s and other significant disorders – but may be normal in the presence of serious pathology.
  • Rheumatoid factor and autoimmune screen may be helpful if a connective tissue disorder is suspected.
  • Serum calcium, phosphate and alkaline phosphatase: Calcium and phosphate low, alkaline phosphatase high in rickets.
  • Creatine kinase: Markedly elevated in muscular dystrophy.
  • ASO titre is raised in 80% of cases of rheumatic fever.
  • In hospital, blood culture may identify the infecting organism in osteomyelitis and septic arthritis.

Top Tips

  • Never forget to examine the soles of the feet and between the toes for obvious and potentially simple to treat, non-serious causes of limp.
  • It’s worth investing some time gaining the child’s confidence – this will enable you to make a proper assessment and feel positive about your management.
  • Parents may try to rationalise the symptom by recalling a recent minor episode of trauma, which is likely to be purely coincidental.
  • Don’t forget referred pain. Hip pathology can cause pain in the knee.

Red Flags

  • Marked restriction of movement and/or dramatic bony tenderness suggests a significant problem – especially fracture, septic arthritis and osteomyelitis.
  • Fever with a limp requires an urgent specialist opinion. Admit to exclude osteomyelitis or septic arthritis.
  • Beware the obese pubertal boy with groin pain and a limp – slipped femoral epiphysis is likely.
  • Do not confine your assessment to the hip – for example, abdominal pain, especially appendicitis, can make a child limp.
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Website disclaimer

Pulse Reference is based on the best-selling book Symptom Sorter.

The experts behind Pulse Reference are Dr Keith Hopcroft who is the co-author of Symptom Sorter, a GP in Essex and Pulse’s editorial advisor and Dr Poppy Freeman, a GP in Camden and also a clinical advisor to Pulse.

This website is for clinical guidance only and cannot give definitive diagnostic information. Practitioners should work within the limits of their individual professional practice, seek guidance when necessary and refer appropriately.