Differences between lengths of the two upper extremities (upper and/or lower arms) or between the lengths of the two lower extremities (upper and/or lower legs) are called limb length discrepancy (LLD). A limb length discrepancy may be due to a normal variation that we all have between the two sides of our bodies, or it may be due to other causes. Some differences are so common that they are normal and need no treatment. For example, one study reported that 32 percent of 600 military recruits had a 5mm to 15mm (approximately 1/5 to 3/5 inch) difference between the lengths of their two lower extremities; this is a normal variation. Greater differences may need treatment because a discrepancy can affect a patient?s well being and quality of life.
Some children are born with absence or underdeveloped bones in the lower limbs e.g., congenital hemimelia. Others have a condition called hemihypertrophy that causes one side of the body to grow faster than the other. Sometimes, increased blood flow to one limb (as in a hemangioma or blood vessel tumor) stimulates growth to the limb. In other cases, injury or infection involving the epiphyseal plate (growth plate) of the femur or tibia inhibits or stops altogether the growth of the bone. Fractures healing in an overlapped position, even if the epiphyseal plate is not involved, can also cause limb length discrepancy. Neuromuscular problems like polio can also cause profound discrepancies, but thankfully, uncommon. Lastly, Wilms? tumor of the kidney in a child can cause hypertrophy of the lower limb on the same side. It is therefore important in a young child with hemihypertrophy to have an abdominal ultrasound exam done to rule out Wilms? tumor. It is important to distinguish true leg length discrepancy from apparent leg length discrepancy. Apparent discrepancy is due to an instability of the hip, that allows the proximal femur to migrate proximally, or due to an adduction or abduction contracture of the hip that causes pelvic obliquity, so that one hip is higher than the other. When the patient stands, it gives the impression of leg length discrepancy, when the problem is actually in the hip.
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.
On standing examination one iliac crest may be higher/lower than the other. However a physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor will examine the LLD in prone or supine position and measure it, confirming the diagnosis of structural (or functional) LLD. The LLD should be measured using bony fixed points. X-Ray should be taken in a standing position. The osteopath, physiotherapist or chiropractor will look at femoral head & acetabulum, knee joints, ankle joints.
Non Surgical Treatment
The way in which we would treat a LLD would depend on whether we have an anatomical or functional difference. To determine which one is causing the LLD you will need to get your legs measured. This is the easiest way to determine if it is anatomical or functional. With a functional LLD we must first determine the cause and treat the cause. Should the cause be one that is not correctable then we may need to treat the LLD as if it were an anatomical or may have to treat the opposite leg to improve one's gait. As for the anatomical LLD, we may start off with a heel lift only in the shoe and follow up to see if we will need to put the lift full sole on the bottom of the shoe. This is determined by the affects that a heel lift in one shoe may have on that knee. Should the LLD be more than 1/4 inch we usually recommend starting between 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch less than the actual amount and let the body adjust to the change and then raise up to the measured amount later.
what is a shoe lift?
Many people undergo surgery for various reasons - arthritis, knee replacement, hip replacement, even back surgery. However, the underlying cause of leg length inequality still remains. So after expensive and painful surgery, follow by time-consuming and painful rehab, the true culprit still remains. Resuming normal activities only continues to place undue stress on the already overloaded side. Sadly so, years down the road more surgeries are recommended for other joints that now endure the excessive forces.