Having one leg shorter than the other is a common physical condition. It has two primary causes--structural or functional problems. Structural differences in length can be the result of growth defect, previous injuries or surgeries. Functional differences in length can result from altered mechanics of the feet, knee, hip and/or pelvis. These altered mechanics from functional leg length discrepancy often stem from having an unbalanced foundation.
There are many causes of leg length discrepancy. Some include, A broken leg bone may lead to a leg length discrepancy if it heals in a shortened position. This is more likely if the bone was broken in many pieces. It also is more likely if skin and muscle tissue around the bone were severely injured and exposed, as in an open fracture. Broken bones in children sometimes grow faster for several years after healing, causing the injured bone to become longer. A break in a child's bone through the growth center near the end of the bone may cause slower growth, resulting in a shorter leg. Bone infections that occur in children while they are growing may cause a significant leg length discrepancy. This is especially true if the infection happens in infancy. Inflammation of joints during growth may cause unequal leg length. One example is juvenile arthritis. Bone diseases may cause leg length discrepancy, as well. Examples are, Neurofibromatosis, Multiple hereditary exostoses, Ollier disease. Other causes include inflammation (arthritis) and neurologic conditions. Sometimes the cause of leg length discrepancy is unknown, particularly in cases involving underdevelopment of the inner or outer side of the leg, or partial overgrowth of one side of the body. These conditions are usually present at birth, but the leg length difference may be too small to be detected. As the child grows, the leg length discrepancy increases and becomes more noticeable. In underdevelopment, one of the two bones between the knee and the ankle is abnormally short. There also may be related foot or knee problems. Hemihypertrophy (one side too big) or hemiatrophy (one side too small) are rare leg length discrepancy conditions. In these conditions, the arm and leg on one side of the body are either longer or shorter than the arm and leg on the other side of the body. There may also be a difference between the two sides of the face. Sometimes no cause can be found. This is known as an "idiopathic" difference.
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.
There are several orthopedic tests that are used, but they are rudimentary and have some degree of error. Even using a tape measure with specific anatomic landmarks has its errors. Most leg length differences can be seen with a well trained eye, but I always recommend what is called a scanagram, or a x-ray bone length study (see picture above). This test will give a precise measurement in millimeters of the length difference.
Non Surgical Treatment
The most common solution to rectify the difference in your leg lengths is to compensate for the short fall in your shortest leg, thereby making both of your legs structurally the same length. Surgery is a drastic option and extremely rare, mainly because the results are not guaranteed aswell as the risks associated with surgery, not to mention the inconvenience of waiting until your broken bones are healed. Instead, orthopediatrician's will almost always advise on the use of "heel lifts for leg length discrepancy". These are a quick, simple and costs effective solution. They sit under your heel, inside your shoe and elevate your shorter leg by the same amount as the discrepancy. Most heel lifts are adjustable and come in a range of sizes. Such lifts can instantly correct a leg length discrepancy and prevent the cause of associate risks.
leg length discrepancy symptoms
The type of surgery depends on the type of problem. Outpatient procedures may be used to alter the growth of the limb. This is often done through small incisions. If an outpatient procedure is done, your child can continue with most regular activities. Other times, surgery may be very involved and require the use of an external device that is attached to the limb with pins and wires. This device may be left on for months to correct the deformity or lengthen the leg. If this type of surgery is required, your child will be making weekly visits to Cincinnati Children's.