The Myth of Uneven Leg Length

Doctors and chiropractors like to tell people that they have one leg longer than the other, and that it is the cause of their back, hip, or knee pain. The truth is that while it is certainly possible to have one leg longer than the other, the odds of your leg length discrepancy being significant enough to cause you pain are extremely small.

When doctors and chiropractors diagnose you with leg length discrepancy, most often it’s because you’re hiking one hip up higher than the other. That’s right—it’s not the length of your leg bones that is causing your uneven leg length. It’s most likely the muscles in your waist, hips, back, and abdominals.

Most of us have a dominant side of our body, and we use that side in different ways than we do our non-dominant side. For example, I’m right-handed, and when I was a ballet dancer I practiced movements more often with my right side than my left. I also had the habit of standing with all my weight on my left leg.

In photos of me as a teenager you can see my right hip hiked up higher than my left, and this posture stayed with me into adulthood. I remember stepping on and wearing away the bottom hem on the left leg of my pants, while the right hem stayed perfect. If I had ever sought out a diagnosis, undoubtedly the answer would have been uneven leg length.

When I began training in Clinical Somatic Education and learned how to release the chronic tightness in my obliques (the muscles on the sides of the waist that hike up the hips) my hips evened out, and all of a sudden my legs were miraculously the same length. The pain in my left hip went away too!

The underlying cause of uneven leg length

So, how and why do our waist and hip muscles become tight enough to cause uneven leg length? And why does it happen to some people and not others?

The movement and level of contraction in our muscles is controlled by our nervous system. The way that our muscles move, and how much we keep them contracted, is actually learned over time by our nervous system.

Our nervous system learns certain ways of using our muscles based on how we choose to stand and move each and every day. Our nervous system notices the postures and movements that we tend to repeat, and it gradually makes these postures and movements automatic so that we don’t have to consciously think about them.

This learning process—that of developing what we know as muscle memory—allows us to go through the activities in our daily lives easily and efficiently. Unfortunately, if we tend to repeat unnatural postures or movements (like practicing my dance moves on my right side, and standing with all my weight on my left leg) our nervous system will learn those too. Our automatic neuromuscular learning process doesn’t discern what is good or bad for us—it just notices what we tend to repeat, and makes it automatic.

So, what should you do if you have uneven leg length?

If you have uneven leg length, you can use Clinical Somatics exercises to retrain your nervous system to release the tight muscles that are hiking your hip up. Clinical Somatic Education uses a movement technique called pandiculation to release chronic, learned muscular tension and bring muscles back into voluntary control. You can learn Clinical Somatics exercises in lessons or group classes with a certified educator or on your own at home.

If you’d like to learn Clinical Somatics exercises at home, you should start with the Level One Course. This online course teaches the exercises through video demonstrations, audio classes, and written explanations.

If you’ve been diagnosed with scoliosis, you can start instead with Clinical Somatics for Scoliosis.