Differences between the lengths of the upper and/or lower legs are called leg length discrepancies (LLD). A leg length difference may simply be a mild variation between the two sides of the body. This is not unusual in the general population. For example, one study reported that 32 percent of 600 military recruits had a 1/5 inch to a 3/5 inch difference between the lengths of their legs. This is a normal variation. Greater differences may need treatment because a significant difference can affect a patient's well-being and quality of life.
A number of causes may lead to leg length discrepancy in children. Differences in leg length frequently follow fractures in the lower extremities in children due to over or under stimulation of the growth plates in the broken leg. Leg length discrepancy may also be caused by a congenital abnormality associated with a condition called hemihypertrophy. Or it may result from neuromuscular diseases such as polio and cerebral palsy. Many times, no cause can be identified. A small leg length discrepancy of a quarter of an inch or less is quite common in the general population and of no clinical significance. Larger leg length discrepancies become more significant. The long-term consequences of a short leg may include knee pain, back pain, and abnormal gait or limp.
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
You may be prescribed a heel lift, which will equal out your leg length and decrease stress on your low back and legs. If it?s your pelvis causing the leg length discrepancy, then your physical therapist could use your muscles to realign your pelvis and then strengthen your core/abdominal region to minimize the risk of such malalignment happening again. If you think that one leg may be longer than the other and it is causing you to have pain or you are just curious, then make an appointment with a physical therapist.
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Lengthening is usually done by corticotomy and gradual distraction. This technique can result in lengthenings of 25% or more, but typically lengthening of 15%, or about 6 cm, is recommended. The limits of lengthening depend on patient tolerance, bony consolidation, maintenance of range of motion, and stability of the joints above and below the lengthened limb. Numerous fixation devices are available, such as the ring fixator with fine wires, monolateral fixator with half pins, or a hybrid frame. The choice of fixation device depends on the desired goal. A monolateral device is easier to apply and better tolerated by the patient. The disadvantages of monolateral fixation devices include the limitation of the degree of angular correction that can concurrently be obtained; the cantilever effect on the pins, which may result in angular deformity, especially when lengthening the femur in large patients; and the difficulty in making adjustments without placing new pins. Monolateral fixators appear to have a similar success rate as circular fixators, especially with more modest lengthenings (20%).