Quick question for you. Which of your legs is longer—your left or your right?
Most people don’t know the answer. In fact, there’s a good chance that the question itself has never even crossed your mind. Humans are supposed to be symmetrical, right? Aren’t they supposed to be exactly the same length?
Actually, it’s not that simple. In fact, almost everybody has a slight leg length discrepancy (LLD), with an average variation of around 1 centimeter (2/5 of an inch).
While most leg length discrepancies are small enough for your body to compensate without really even noticing, they can occasionally cause painful problems—particularly if the discrepancy is large, or if you are highly active. And because it only takes a couple of centimeters to cause issues, many people end up suffering without even knowing why!
Fortunately, this is a problem that we are well equipped to diagnose and address using simple, conservative methods.
What Are the Signs of Leg Length Discrepancy?
Aside from the leg length difference itself—which is not always obvious at first glance—other signs you may have this problem include:
Pain in the bottom or outside of the foot—and often one foot more than the other, or in different locations on each foot.
Pain in the knees or hips (due to the joints having to compensate for the discrepancy) or in the back (due to posture issues).
Walking with a limp. Often the foot of the long leg will overpronate while the foot of the short leg underpronates.
Other posture issues (such as tilted shoulders or pelvis, lumbar scoliosis).
The greater the discrepancy between the leg lengths, the more likely you are to experience significant symptoms.
Activity level is another potentially triggering factor. You might find that the discrepancy isn’t an issue for day-to-day walking or light activities, but can cause a lot of pain if you like to run or play sports.
Why Are My Legs Different Lengths?
There are actually two “classes” of leg length discrepancy:
Structural leg length discrepancy. In this case, the leg bones themselves are physically shorter or smaller than the bones in the other leg.
Functional leg length discrepancy. In this case, the bones are of equal length, but one leg “functions” as longer or shorter than the other due to other problems (e.g., a foot deformity, muscle imbalances in the legs or hips, etc.)
Structural LLD may be genetically inherited, or caused by a specific injury (broken bone, growth plate irritation, etc.), illness, or infection, often during the childhood or adolescent years.
Functional LLD could be the result of things like bad posture, injuries, training mistakes, or anything that could cause a strength imbalance between the muscles and tendons on one side of the body versus the other side.
Restoring Balance to Your Steps
If you come to our office complaining of symptoms that we suspect could be the result of a leg length discrepancy, we’ll closely examine and measure your legs to confirm (or disprove) the diagnosis.
The good news is that, even though your LLD might be large enough that it’s causing problems, the actual length difference is still typically small enough that we can provide significant relief using simple, non-surgical methods. Discrepancies of up to 1 inch are often best managed with orthotics.
To provide immediate, partial relief in the short term, we will often dispense a set of medical-grade, over-the-counter shoe inserts. This might take the form of heel lifts in the case of structural LLD, or more conventional arch supports if the discrepancy is a functional result of poor posture or biomechanics. Either way, compensating for the discrepancy helps restore a healthier biomechanical posture, reducing pain and strain not only on the feet, but the ankles, knees, hips, and back as well.
Quite often, we will also recommend you get fitted for a set of custom orthotics, precisely matched for your foot and arch shape and exact leg length discrepancy. This will likely be your best route to full, long-term pain relief and restoration of function. However, since they can take a few weeks to manufacture and break in, it’s usually best to start with a prefabricated pair immediately and then switch to custom orthotics when they’re ready for you.
Don’t Ignore Unexplained Foot Pain!
Whether the source of your discomfort is a leg length discrepancy, poor shoes, training issues, or anything else, foot pain is never normal. The sooner you seek help, the sooner we can figure out what’s wrong—and then get you the personalized treatment plan you need to address your symptoms and get you back to living life to the fullest again.
You can reach our office in Massapequa, NY at (516) 804-9038, or by using our appointment request form online.