Leg length discrepancy is the difference in lengths of an individual?s legs. This difference may be anatomical or may be due to scoliosis, trauma/injury, arthritis, overpronation (collapse) of one foot, bowing of one leg or unequal bowing, surgery (hip or knee replacement), pelvic tilting or ageing. The difference can also be functional caused by differing forces of the soft tissues, such as weakness in muscle tissue on one side, or a weakness/tightness in joint tissue. A difference in leg lengths also results when running on indoor banked tracks, beaches and banked streets and side walks (for drainage). Many people have a measurable difference in their leg lengths which is compensated for by their bodies. As we age this compensation does not work as well. An x-ray and physical measurements will define the discrepancy and the adjustment needed.
Leg length discrepancies can be caused by poor alignment of the pelvis or simply because one leg is structurally longer than the other. Regardless of the reason, your body wants to be symmetrical and will do its best to compensate for the length difference. The greater the leg length difference, the earlier the symptoms will present themselves to the patient. Specific diagnoses that coincide with leg length discrepancy include: scoliosis, lumbar herniated discs, sacroiliitis, pelvic obiliquity, greater trochanteric bursitis, hip arthritis, piriformis syndrome, patellofemoral syndrome and foot pronation. Other potential causes could be due to an injury (such as a fracture), bone disease, bone tumors, congenital problems (present at birth) or from a neuromuscular problem.
Faulty feet and ankle structure profoundly affect leg length and pelvic positioning. The most common asymmetrical foot position is the pronated foot. Sensory receptors embedded on the bottom of the foot alert the brain to the slightest weight shift. Since the brain is always trying to maintain pelvic balance, when presented with a long left leg, it attempts to adapt to the altered weight shift by dropping the left medial arch (shortening the long leg) and supinating the right arch to lengthen the short leg.1 Left unchecked, excessive foot pronation will internally rotate the left lower extremity, causing excessive strain to the lateral meniscus and medial collateral knee ligaments. Conversely, excessive supination tends to externally rotate the leg and thigh, creating opposite knee, hip and pelvic distortions.
Infants, children or adolescents suspected of having a limb-length condition should receive an evaluation at the first sign of difficulty in using their arms or legs. In many cases, signs are subtle and only noticeable in certain situations, such as when buying clothing or playing sports. Proper initial assessments by qualified pediatric orthopedic providers can reduce the likelihood of long-term complications and increase the likelihood that less invasive management will be effective. In most cases, very mild limb length discrepancies require no formal treatment at all.
Non Surgical Treatment
Internal heel lifts: Putting a simple heel lift inside the shoe or onto a foot orthotic has the advantage of being transferable to many pairs of shoes. It is also aesthetically more pleasing as the lift remains hidden from view. However, there is a limit as to how high the lift can be before affecting shoe fit. Dress shoes will usually only accommodate small lifts (1/8"1/4") before the heel starts to piston out of the shoe. Sneakers and workboots may allow higher lifts, e.g., up to 1/2", before heel slippage problems arise. External heel lifts: If a lift of greater than 1/2" is required, you should consider adding to the outsole of the shoe. In this way, the shoe fit remains good. Although some patients may worry about the cosmetics of the shoe, it does ensure better overall function. Nowadays with the development of synthetic foams and crepes, such lifts do not have to be as heavy as the cork buildups of the past. External buildups are not transferable and they will wear down over time, so the patient will need to be vigilant in having them repaired. On ladies' high-heel shoes, it may be possible to lower one heel and thereby correct the imbalance.
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For discrepancies over five centimeters, more aggressive surgical procedures-specifically leg lengthening procedures-are typically required. The specifics of this operative procedure are beyond the scope of this informational page, but your child's physician will be able to discuss the details in reference to your child's specific problems when considered appropriate.