If one scans the literature it readily becomes obvious that leg length discrepancy/asymmetry is a common finding. This fact has been a very controversial topic within chiropractic, and diagnostic rationales have been built around this very common finding.
The object of this column is to consider some of the causes of this discrepancy that the profession may have ignored or not been aware of.
Some causes of leg length discrepancy (other than anatomical). Dysfunction of the hip joint itself leading to compensatory alterations by the joint and muscles that impact on the joint. Muscle mass itself, i.e., the vastus lateralis muscle, pushes the iliotibial band laterally, causing femoral compensations to maintain a line of progression during the gait cycle. This is often misdiagnosed as I-T band syndrome and subsequently treated incorrectly. The internal rotators of the lower limb are being chronically short or in a state of contracture. According to Cunningham's Manual of Practical Anatomy these are muscles whose insertion is lateral to the long axis of the femur. The external rotators of the hip joint are evidenced in the hip rotation test. The iliosacral joint displays joint fixations on the superior or inferior transverse, or the sagittal axes. This may result from many causes including joint, muscle, osseous or compensatory considerations. Short hamstring muscles, i.e., the long head of the biceps femoris muscle. In the closed kinetic chain an inability of the fibula to drop inferior will result in sacrotuberous ligament loading failure. The sacroiliac joint dysfunctions along its right or left oblique axis. Failure or incorrect loading of the Back Force Transmission System (the longitudinal-muscle-tendon-fascia sling and the oblique dorsal muscle-fascia-tendon sling). See the proceedings of the first and second Interdisciplinary World Congress on Low Back Pain. Sacral dysfunction (nutation or counternutation) on the respiratory axis. When we consider the above mentioned, and other causes, it should be obvious that unless we look at all of the causes of leg length discrepancy/asymmetry then we will most assuredly reach a diagnosis based on historical dogma or ritual rather than applying the rules of current differential diagnosis.
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.
Infants, children or adolescents suspected of having a limb-length condition should receive an evaluation at the first sign of difficulty in using their arms or legs. In many cases, signs are subtle and only noticeable in certain situations, such as when buying clothing or playing sports. Proper initial assessments by qualified pediatric orthopedic providers can reduce the likelihood of long-term complications and increase the likelihood that less invasive management will be effective. In most cases, very mild limb length discrepancies require no formal treatment at all.
Non Surgical Treatment
Treatment depends on what limb has the deformity and the amount of deformity present. For example, there may be loss of function of the leg or arm. Cosmetic issues may also be a concern for the patient and their family. If there are problems with the arms, the goal is to improve the appearance and function of the arm. Treatment of leg problems try to correct the deformity that may cause arthritis as the child gets older. If the problem is leg length, where the legs are not "equal," the goal is equalization (making the legs the same length). Treatment may include the use of adaptive devices, prosthesis, orthotics or shoe lifts. If the problem is more severe and not treatable with these methods, then surgery may be necessary.
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Differences of an inch-and-a-half to two inches may require epiphysiodesis (adjusting the growth of the longer side) or acute shortening of the other side. Differences greater than 2.5 inches usually require a lengthening procedure. The short bone is cut and an external device is applied. Gradual lengthening is done over months to allow the muscles and nerves accommodate the new length.