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.
The causes of LLD are many, including a previous injury, bone infection, bone diseases (dysplasias), inflammation (arthritis) and neurologic conditions. Previously broken bones may cause LLD by healing in a shortened position, especially if the bone was broken in many pieces (comminuted) or if skin and muscle tissue around the bone were severely injured and exposed (open fracture). Broken bones in children sometimes grow faster for several years after healing, causing the injured bone to become longer. Also, a break in a child?s bone through a growth center (located near the ends of the bone) may cause slower growth, resulting in a shorter extremity. Bone infections that occur in children while they are growing may cause a significant LLD, especially during infancy. Bone diseases may cause LLD, as well; examples are neurofibromatosis, multiple hereditary exostoses and Ollier disease. Inflammation of joints during growth may cause unequal extremity length. One example is juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis, the joint degeneration that occurs in adults, very rarely causes a significant LLD.
The effects vary from patient to patient, depending on the cause of the discrepancy and the magnitude of the difference. Differences of 3 1/2 to 4 percent of the total length of the lower extremity (4 cm or 1 2/3 inches in an average adult), including the thigh, lower leg and foot, may cause noticeable abnormalities while walking and require more effort to walk. Differences between the lengths of the upper extremities cause few problems unless the difference is so great that it becomes difficult to hold objects or perform chores with both hands. You and your physician can decide what is right for you after discussing the causes, treatment options and risks and benefits of limb lengthening, including no treatment at all. Although an LLD may be detected on a screening examination for curvature of the spine (scoliosis), LLD does not cause scoliosis. There is controversy about the effect of LLD on the spine. Some studies indicate that people with an LLD have a greater incidence of low back pain and an increased susceptibility to injuries, but other studies refute this relationship.
The only way to decipher between anatomical and functional leg length inequalities (you can have both) is by a physical measurement and series of biomechanical tests. It is actually a simple process and gets to the true cause of some runner?s chronic foot, knee, hip and back pain. After the muscles are tested and the legs are measured it may be necessary to get a special X-ray that measures both of your thighs (Femurs) and legs (Tibias). The X-ray is read by a medical radiologist who provides a report of the actual difference down to the micrometer leaving zero room for error. Once the difference in leg length is known, the solution becomes clear.
Non Surgical Treatment
In an adult, we find that we can add a non compressive silicone heel lift to a shoe in increments of 3-4 mm maximum per week. Were we to give a patient with a 20 mm short leg, 20 mm of lift all at once, their entire body would rebel. The various compensations that the body has made, such as curvatures and shortening of muscles on the convex side of the curve, would make such a dramatic change not just noticeable, but painful. When we get close to balancing a patient by lifting a leg with heel inserts, then we perform another gait analysis and follow up xray. At that point, we can typically write them a final prescription to have their shoe modified. A heel lift is typically fine up to 7 mm. When it gets higher than that, the entire shoe must be modified. There are two reasons for this. The back of the shoe is generally too short to accommodate more than 7-8 mm inserted inside the shoes and a heel lift greater than 7 mm will lead to Achilles tendon shortening, which then creates it?s own panoply of problems.
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.
The adult acquired flatfoot (AAF) is a progressive, symptomatic (painful) deformity resulting from gradual stretch (attenuation) of the tibialis posterior tendon as well as the ligaments that support the arch of the foot. Although the posterior tibialis tendon plays a significant role, this pathology has recently been recognized as involving failure of other interosseous ligaments, such as the spring ligament. Due to the complexity of this pathology, posterior tibial tendon dysfunction (PTTD) is now referred to as adult acquired flatfoot. Severe flatfoot associated with AAF can lead to other problems, such as plantar fascial tension, tendon pain, rearfoot subluxation, and ankle osteoarthritis.
There are numerous causes of acquired adult flatfoot, including fracture or dislocation, tendon laceration, tarsal coalition, arthritis, neuroarthropathy, neurologic weakness, and iatrogenic causes. The most common cause of acquired adult flatfoot is posterior tibial tendon dysfunction.
Symptoms of pain may have developed gradually as result of overuse or they may be traced to one minor injury. Typically, the pain localizes to the inside (medial) aspect of the ankle, under the medial malleolus. However, some patients will also experience pain over the outside (lateral) aspect of the hindfoot because of the displacement of the calcaneus impinging with the lateral malleolus. This usually occurs later in the course of the condition. Patients may walk with a limp or in advanced cases be disabled due to pain. They may also have noticed worsening of their flatfoot deformity.
Looking at the patient when they stand will usually demonstrate a flatfoot deformity (marked flattening of the medial longitudinal arch). The front part of the foot (forefoot) is often splayed out to the side. This leads to the presence of a ?too many toes? sign. This sign is present when the toes can be seen from directly behind the patient. The gait is often somewhat flatfooted as the patient has the dysfunctional posterior tibial tendon can no longer stabilize the arch of the foot. The physician?s touch will often demonstrate tenderness and sometimes swelling over the inside of the ankle just below the bony prominence (the medial malleolus). There may also be pain in the outside aspect of the ankle. This pain originates from impingement or compression of two tendons between the outside ankle bone (fibula) and the heel bone (calcaneus) when the patient is standing.
Non surgical Treatment
Because of the progressive nature of PTTD, early treatment is critical. If treated soon enough, symptoms may resolve without the need for surgery and progression of the condition can be stopped. If left untreated, PTTD may create an extremely flat foot, painful arthritis in the foot and ankle, and will limit your ability to walk, run, and other activities. Your podiatrist may recommend one or more of these non-surgical treatments to manage your PTTD. Orthotic devices or bracing. To give your arch the support it needs, your foot and ankle surgeon may recommend an ankle brace or a custom orthotic device that fits into your shoe to support the arch. Immobilization. A short-leg cast or boot may be worn to immobilize the foot and allow the tendon to heal. Physical therapy. Ultrasound therapy and stretching exercises may help rehabilitate the tendon and muscle following immobilization. Medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, help reduce the pain and inflammation. Shoe modifications. Your foot and ankle surgeon may recommend changes in your footwear.
If surgery is necessary, a number of different procedures may be considered. The specifics of the planned surgery depend upon the stage of the disorder and the patient?s specific goals. Procedures may include ligament and muscle lengthening, removal of the inflamed tendon lining, tendon transfers, cutting and realigning bones, placement of implants to realign the foot and joint fusions. In general, early stage disease may be treated with tendon and ligament (soft-tissue) procedures with the addition of osteotomies to realign the foot. Later stage disease with either a rigidly fixed deformity or with arthritis is often treated with fusion procedures. If you are considering surgery, your doctor will speak with about the specifics of the planned procedure.