Approximately 75% of us present with one leg longer than the other. It?s staggering, literally, that so many people walk about with an imbalance. Yet to have one leg longer than the other doesn?t seem to create pain for everyone but for those that it does it brings pain in a myriad of dysfunction from TMJ, headaches, low back pain, IBS, bladder problems, sexual dysfunction, sacroiliac joint pain, pubis dysfunction, groin strain, gluteal dysfunction as well as the formation of trigger points.
Leg length discrepancies can be caused by: hip and knee replacements, lower limb injuries, bone diseases, neuromuscular issues and congenital problems. Although discrepancies of 2 cm or less are most common, discrepancies can be greater than 6 cm. People who have LLD tend to make up for the difference by over bending their longer leg or standing on the toes of their shorter leg. This compensation leads to an inefficient, up and down gait, which is quite tiring and over time can result in posture problems as well as pain in the back, hips, knees and ankles.
The effects of limb length discrepancy vary from patient to patient, depending on the cause and size of the difference. Differences of 3 1/2 percent to 4 percent of the total length of the leg (about 4 cm or 1 2/3 inches in an average adult) may cause noticeable abnormalities when walking. These differences may require the patient to exert more effort to walk. There is controversy about the effect of limb length discrepancy on back pain. Some studies show that people with a limb length discrepancy have a greater incidence of low back pain and an increased susceptibility to injuries. Other studies do not support this finding.
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 object of treatment for leg length discrepancy is to level the pelvis and equalize the length of the two limbs. Inequalities of 2-2.5 centimeters can be handled with the following. Heel lifts/ adjustable heel lifts can be used inside a shoe where shoes have a full heel counter. Heel lifts may be added to the heel on the outside of the shoe along with an internal heel lift. Full platforms along the forefoot and rearfoot area of a shoe can be added. There are many different adjustable heel lifts available on the market. For treatment of a leg length discrepancy, consult your physician. They may refer you to a Physiotherapist or Chiropractor for determination of the type of LLD. A Certified Pedorthist (Canada) will treat a structural leg length discrepancy with a heel lift or in larger discrepancies a footwear modification.
Shortening techniques can be used after skeletal maturity to achieve leg length equality. Shortening can be done in the proximal femur using a blade plate or hip screw, in the mid-diaphysis of the femur using a closed intramedullary (IM) technique, or in the tibia. Shortening is an accurate technique and involves a much shorter convalescence than lengthening techniques. Quadriceps weakness may occur with femoral shortenings, especially if a mid-diaphyseal shortening of greater than 10% is done. If the femoral shortening is done proximally, no significant weakness should result. Tibial shortening can be done, but there may be a residual bulkiness to the leg, and risks of nonunion and compartment syndrome are higher. If a tibial shortening is done, shortening over an IM nail and prophylactic compartment release are recommended. We limit the use of shortenings to 4 to 5 cm leg length inequality in patients who are skeletally mature.