The majority of people in the world actually have some degree of leg length discrepancy, up to 2cm. One study found that only around 1/4 of people have legs of equal lengths. LLD of greater than 2cm is relatively rare, however, and the greater the discrepancy, the greater the chances of having a clinical problem down the road. A limp generally begins when LLD exceeds 2cm and becomes extremely noticeable above 3cm. When patients with LLD develop an abnormal gait, one of the debilitating clinical features can be fatigue because of the relatively high amount of energy needed to walk in the new, inefficient way. Poliomyelitis, or polio, as it is more commonly known, used to account for around 1/3 of all cases of LLD, but due to the effectiveness of polio vaccines, it now represents a negligible cause of the condition. Functional LLD, described above, usually involves treatment focused on the hip, pelvis, and/or lower back, rather than the leg. If you have been diagnosed with functional LLD or pelvic obliquity, please ask your orthopaedic surgeon for more information about treatment of these conditions.
A patient?s legs may be different lengths for a number of reasons, including a broken leg bone may heal in a shorter position, particularly if the injury was severe. In children, broken bones may grow faster for a few years after they heal, resulting in one longer leg. If the break was near the growth center, slower growth may ensue. Children, especially infants, who have a bone infection during a growth spurt may have a greater discrepancy. Inflammation of joints, such as juvenile arthritis during growth, may cause unequal leg length. Compensation for spinal or pelvic scoliosis. Bone diseases such as Ollier disease, neurofibromatosis, or multiple hereditary exostoses. Congenital differences.
Often there are few or no symptoms prior to the age of 25-35. The most common symptom is chronic lower back pain, but also is frequently middle and upper back pain. Same-sided and repeated injury or pain to the hip, knee and/or ankle is also a hallmark of a long-standing untreated LLD. It is not uncommon to have buttock or radiating hip pain that is non-dermatomal (not from a disc) and tends to go away when lying down.
Asymmetry is a clue that a LLD is present. The center of gravity will shift to the short limb side and patients will try to compensate, displaying indications such as pelvic tilt, lumbar scoliosis, knee flexion, or unilateral foot pronation. Asking simple questions such as, "Do you favor one leg over the other?" or, "Do you find it uncomfortable to stand?" may also provide some valuable information. Performing a gait analysis will yield some clues as to how the patient compensates during ambulation. Using plantar pressure plates can indicate load pressure differences between the feet. It is helpful if the gait analysis can be video-recorded and played back in slow motion to catch the subtle aspects of movement.
Non Surgical Treatment
A properly made foot orthotic can go a long way in substituting additional millimeters or centimeter on the deficient side. Additional full length inserts are added to the shorter side bringing the runner closer to symmetrical. Heel lifts do not work in runners because when you run you may land on your heel but the rest of the time you are on your forefoot then your toes pushing off. The right custom-made, biomechanical orthotic can address the underlying cause of your pain. Abnormal joint position, overpronation or foot rigidity can be addressed and the biomechanics normalized. San Diego Running Institute orthotics are custom molded to your foot and are designed with your specific body weight, leg length discrepancy, and activity in mind. The restoration of correct mechanical function takes the abnormal stress from the uneven side and allows the body to heal naturally.
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Surgery is another option. In some cases the longer extremity can be shortened, but a major shortening may weaken the muscles of the extremity. In growing children, lower extremities can also be equalized by a surgical procedure that stops the growth at one or two sites of the longer extremity, while leaving the remaining growth undisturbed. Your physician can tell you how much equalization can be attained by surgically halting one or more growth centers. The procedure is performed under X-ray control through very small incisions in the knee area. This procedure will not cause an immediate correction in length. Instead, the LLD will gradually decrease as the opposite extremity continues to grow and "catch up." Timing of the procedure is critical; the goal is to attain equal length of the extremities at skeletal maturity, usually in the mid- to late teens. Disadvantages of this option include the possibility of slight over-correction or under-correction of the LLD and the patient?s adult height will be less than if the shorter extremity had been lengthened. Correction of significant LLDs by this method may make a patient?s body look slightly disproportionate because of the shorter legs.