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.
Some limb-length differences are caused by actual anatomic differences from one side to the other (referred to as structural causes). The femur is longer (or shorter) or the cartilage between the femur and tibia is thicker (or thinner) on one side. There could be actual deformities in one femur or hip joint contributing to leg length differences from side to side. Even a small structural difference can amount to significant changes in the anatomy of the limb. A past history of leg fracture, developmental hip dysplasia, slipped capital femoral epiphysis (SCFE), short neck of the femur, or coxa vara can also lead to placement of the femoral head in the hip socket that is offset. The end-result can be a limb-length difference and early degenerative arthritis of the hip.
The most common symptom of all forms of LLD is chronic backache. In structural LLD the sufferer may also experience arthritis within the knee and hip are, flank pain, plantar fasciitis and metatarsalgia all on the side that is longer. Functional LLD sufferers will see similar conditions on the shorter side.
Leg length discrepancy may be diagnosed during infancy or later in childhood, depending on the cause. Conditions such as hemihypertrophy or hemiatrophy are often diagnosed following standard newborn or infant examinations by a pediatrician, or anatomical asymmetries may be noticed by a child's parents. For young children with hemihypertophy as the cause of their LLD, it is important that they receive an abdominal ultrasound of the kidneys to insure that Wilm's tumor, which can lead to hypertrophy in the leg on the same side, is not present. In older children, LLD is frequently first suspected due to the emergence of a progressive limp, warranting a referral to a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon. The standard workup for LLD is a thorough physical examination, including a series of measurements of the different portions of the lower extremities with the child in various positions, such as sitting and standing. The orthopaedic surgeon will observe the child while walking and performing other simple movements or tasks, such as stepping onto a block. In addition, a number of x-rays of the legs will be taken, so as to make a definitive diagnosis and to assist with identification of the possible etiology (cause) of LLD. Orthopaedic surgeons will compare x-rays of the two legs to the child's age, so as to assess his/her skeletal age and to obtain a baseline for the possibility of excessive growth rate as a cause. A growth chart, which compares leg length to skeletal age, is a simple but essential tool used over time to track the progress of the condition, both before and after treatment. Occasionally, a CT scan or MRI is required to further investigate suspected causes or to get more sophisticated radiological pictures of bone or soft tissue.
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.
shoe lifts for uneven legs
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.