What happens when one leg is shorter than the other?

It’s not uncommon, but it can still cause major pains

Stock image. Yan Krukov (Pexels)

Have you ever been to a doctor or chiropractor and been somewhat startled when the doc delivered this news? “You have one leg that is an inch shorter than the other.”

Believe it or not, it’s not that unusual to get such a diagnosis.

Having one leg longer than the other, a condition known as leg length discrepancy, is more common than people might imagine.

Here are some things to understand if you learn one leg is shorter than the other, according to Dr. Joshua Langford, the director of the Orthopedic Surgery Residency Program at Orlando Health Jewett Orthopedic Institute.

Again, it’s not uncommon.

When one leg is longer than the other, it can be due to misalignment or tilting in body parts such as the hip, pelvis, knee, foot or ankle.

“It’s pretty common -- (more) than you think,” Langford said. “Something like a third of people have close to a half-inch difference, side to side. But most people don’t notice it because you grew up that way.”

Many routine movements can still be performed and pain can be minimal, but there are risks for bigger problems.

Does leg length discrepancy develop over one’s life, or are you born with it?

The answer can be both.

When it’s developed over one’s life, it’s more under the category of functional leg length discrepancy.

Performing athletic or other activities that put more weight on certain body parts, neuromuscular conditions that affect alignment and posture, or arthritis are examples of what can cause functional leg length discrepancy, according to Medical News Today.

There is also structural leg length discrepancy, which can occur at birth when the femur or tibia is shorter than the other.

Other causes of structural leg length discrepancy can be:

  • Bone injuries. This can lead to a slowing of bone growth in one leg.
  • Growth plate injuries. This is an area of cartilage that sits near the end of long bones, and if an injury occurs, it can grow faster or slower than the opposite bone.
  • Bone diseases and tumors. These can cause damage to growth plates and affect growth.
  • Juvenile arthritis. This can cause issues in bone growth because of potential inflammation of tissue inside joints.
  • Accidents or trauma. These can cause sudden and instant health problems, or Langford said they can be smaller incidents that build up over time. “A lot of times you get to adulthood and maybe you didn’t realize you had a trauma that caused you to have a growth (problem), and your body can tolerate it for a really long time, until you are about 35 and then your spine says, ‘No more,’” Langford said.

What are problems that leg length discrepancy can cause?

These can be wide-ranging, but examples include:

  • Walking with a limp.
  • Misalignment of the spine.
  • Significant disc irritation near the spine.
  • Pain in the back, hip, knee or ankle, damaged nerves. “The average age is 35 to 45 when people who have leg length discrepancy start having back pain,” Langford said. “Their back can’t take it.”
  • Increased fatigue.

What are best treatments for leg length discrepancy?

If leg length discrepancy is causing more than just minor discomfort, some of the best treatment options include:

  • Regular visits to a chiropractor for adjustments. This can help align the spine, hip or neck to where it’s not tilted and more symmetrical, which, in turn, can even out leg length and any pain that can come with it.
  • Growth plate adjustments. This is a common treatment, according to Langford. “They can make the growth plate stop on the side that’s overgrown and let the other side catch up, then let the growth plate start again,” he said.
  • Proper exercise and stretching techniques. This can help strengthen any muscles that are causing pain. “Keeping fit helps everything,” Langford said.
  • Shoe lifts. Putting a lift inside the shoe of the shorter leg can be beneficial to combat leg length discrepancy.
  • Surgery. In more serious cases, surgery to shorten or lengthen a leg, or stunt the growth of the longer leg, can be helpful.

Ultimately, Langford said, the most important step if you’re experiencing pain associated with leg length discrepancy is to get an X-ray to find out its severity. From there, treatment options can be assessed.

“Actually quantifying the discrepancy is the most important thing,” Langford said.

Have you had issues with leg length discrepancy? Tell us about your challenges in the comments below.

About the Author:

Keith is a member of Graham Media Group's Digital Content Team, which produces content for all the company's news websites.