Recently, I evaluated a local tennis player who twisted his ankle during a game. While a twisted ankle can be a very ordinary, short-lived injury, what I found during my time with him was no temporary disorder. This player happened to suffer from leg length discrepancy, which was the reason behind his hurt ankle. Known as short leg syndrome, this disorder affects up to 75 percent of the population and can result in lower back, pelvis or hip pain. Irritation may also radiate through the sciatica nerve and be felt down the thigh. For serious athletes, limb length discrepancies of the lower extremities often cause disabling problems.
If you have severe hip pain, back pain or recurrent injuries on only one side of your body, there is a good possibility that one of your legs is shorter than the other.
There are two types of limb length discrepancies. The first type is structural, which stems from a shorter femur or tibia. The second type is a functional shortage, which is actually a position change in the bones while running or walking.
The functional leg discrepancy is usually the result of one foot pronating (inward position) more than the other foot. Pronation causes the arch to flatten, resulting in the leg and thigh pronating as well. The pelvis will then drop slightly, causing a functional shortage of the leg.
The majority of symptoms are usually found on the side of the longer limb because it is in contact with the ground longer and thus absorbs a greater amount of pressure and stress. The short limb also develops various symptoms such as shin splints, which are usually a result of the short leg overstraining while running.
A functional limb length discrepancy will respond well to biomechanical orthotic therapy, and a true structural shortage will require a heel lift. If you have a short leg, but do not suffer from any problems or pain, then do not treat the difference.
Dr. Robert F. Weiss is a podiatrist specializing in foot and ankle surgery. He was a member of the Medical Advisory Committee of the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Marathon trials. Weiss is a veteran of 35 marathons and has a practice in Darien, The Foot & Ankle Institute of Darien. For more information, visit his website at www.therunning doctor.net.