One Leg Longer Than The Other: Hip Pain & Back Pain Strategies

Posted on December 28, 2020
One leg shorter hip pain and back pain
If you have one leg longer than the other, hip pain and back pain will likely be a problem.

My leg length discrepancy was 11cm, now it's around 2.5cm.

It's a constant journey of learning, and the things outlined below have massively helped to manage and reduce pain. 

Here we go…

My best strategies to manage pain with one leg longer than the other.

1. Seek good help

Find a good chiropractor, physio, or someone who can help you.

During lockdown, my hip pain exploded. So when lockdown ended, I found a good chiropractor, who has changed my life.

He assessed my body, and came up with a good plan.

He discovered that my hips had been “stuck” for 20 years, and as a result the rest of my body wasn’t moving properly.

Over 4 months of manipulations and daily exercises, we got everything moving better than ever.

In the first session he took my pain from a 9 to a 3, and we’ve been progressing more and more ever since.

A few noteworthy things happened while working with a chiropractor…

After treatments, my hips reverted to the “stuck” position.

It went like this... He freed up my hips and spine, then they slowly went back to the “stuck” position.

But over time, my body adjusted and stayed “un-stuck” for longer.

The way he describes it is that all the supporting muscles and joints have been in the "stuck" position for 20 years. So, each time he does his manipulations he frees them up, but over the following weeks they go back to the position they’re used to.

It’s like 3 steps forward, 2 steps back. 

To begin with, our sessions were twice a week, then once a week, then once every two weeks, and now once every three weeks.

It’s a beautiful experience, and he's reduced my pain drastically. I sleep better, and feel that I’m on top of my pain management for the first time.

Interesting thing number 2…

The body compensates. Adjust the hips, and neck pain pops up.

Every part of our bodies is connected.

And the body does an amazing job of adjusting and compensating.

Generally speaking, our ears aim to be level. So, if you have uneven hips, the rest of the spine will compensate so the ears are even.

This meant that after releasing my tight hips, I’d get neck pain or shoulder pain… Because everything was working in a new position.

So the next week we worked on my hips, back, upper spine, shoulders, and neck.

It's like a jigsaw puzzle... Things slowly move into a new equilibrium.

Patience and persistence are key!

Tip: Ease off normal exercise routines if you need

After lockdown, I was chomping at the bit to get back to the gym. 

Intense exercise has always been one of my main strategies for wellbeing. 

But I learned that my body needs a few days to “reset”.

So, unfortunately that meant not going to the gym. It was tough, but I adjusted my routine and went for a walk every morning instead.

Having one leg shorter forces new levels of maturity in many aspects of life, and I think this is another one.

Previously I was of the mindset of work, work, work… then stretch, stretch, stretch…

But this forced me to be super patient and ease off the exercise for a while. A tough call, but I feel my body has adjusted so much better as a result.

Persistence is key to finding a good health provider

I’ve had less than impressive health providers in the past, and some who massively helped.

A bad previous experience had turned me off the idea of working with a chiropractor.

But, like many cases of discovering breakthroughs... it can take trial and error and relentless persistence to find a solution that fits.

Even if my hip and back pain don’t disappear completely, I now have a plan to manage and reduce it.

2. Exercises for releasing hip pain and strengthening

Here’s an overview of the exercises I’ve been doing.

I recommend getting expert guidance for your own situation.

My program went in 3 phases…

Phase 1 was releasing the super tight muscles with tennis ball myofascial release.

Phase 2 was stretching.

And phase 3 is strengthening.

Tennis Ball Massage – Myofacial release

All the muscles in my hips, bum, and thighs were super tight.

We released all those tight muscles through myofascial release with a tennis ball.

I spent about an hour each day lying on a tennis ball... Breathing and relaxing tight hip muscles, glutes, TFL, and supporting muscles.

This has been a major breakthrough in releasing the hip tension and reducing pain.

Myofacial release + glute stretch video

Here's a video made by my chiropractor, walking through the tennis ball myofacial release exercise, plus glute stretch.

As he mentions, just avoid your hip bone.

Next we moved on to hip, glute, and leg stretches…

Talk to your own specialist about what the best next steps are for you. But here's an overview of what we did.
  • Standing hip stretch

  • Glute stretch

  • Quad stretch

  • Pelvis lifts
  • Calf stretch – leg straight

  • Calf stretch – leg bent

I do 20 second sets of each, repeated twice on each side... 20 seconds left, 20 seconds right, 20 seconds left, 20 seconds right.

As my hips improved, I started getting super tight in the upper back. So we added a “lying towel relax”. It’s especially great if you work at a computer, which tends to tighten that upper back. I do this at night as a wind-down routine.

I also do a low cat-cow at night to reduce upper back pain.

Strengthening weak leg and hip muscles

A few weeks later we moved on to strengthening the weak muscles in my shorter leg and hip.

I introduced the following...
  • Internal hip rotations
  • Lying leg lifts
  • Standing hip strengthener
Building strength without causing tension was the key here. I literally started with 3 of each per day (about 10 seconds). Any more and the muscles would tense up.

Sidenote: Any exercise I do, I do it on both sides.

My right leg is shorter than the left, but my left side also needs a lot of work. In fact, I'd say that my left side (strong side) is tighter than the right.

Again. I recommend you find your own treatment provider who can assess your unique body.
Or if you can, move to Barcelona for six months and work with Stefan from Sarrià Quiropràctica. I say this because I know how hard it can be to find good help… and he is really brilliant.

3. Swimming

Swimming is a great weightless exercise for people with one leg shorter.

It builds strength, is great for the lungs, and gets everything moving without excess stress on the hips and spine.

4. Gentle stretching and exercises in a swimming pool

This was a game changer for me.

Stretching in a swimming pool (ideally warm) is great to warm the muscles, stretch, and move in ways that feel good.

Being in a pool takes some of the pressure off the hips and spine. It also allows you to move in new ways, such as holding on to the side of the pool and stretching your back or thigh muscles.

Swimming pool exercises that help my hips and back include…

  • Walking lengths. Experimenting with different strides (short, long, sideways…)

  • Squats.

  • Tai chi style moves. Standing and gently moving the weight from side to side.

  • Low lunge yoga pose to stretch the hip flexors. (if the pool has a shallow area)

  • Going up on the toes, to flat feet, then lifting the toes.

  • Balancing on one leg.

  • Standing on one leg and swinging the other behind (beautiful!)

  • Calf muscle stretches.

  • Thigh stretches.

  • Kneeling and stretching hip flexors. Then moving into camel pose for a back bend (if it feels right).

  • Holding on to the side of the pool, bending knees and curling up into a ball (like a backstroke swimmer preparing to start a race).

  • Hooking toes over the edge of the pool and floating.

It’s all about experimentation. Once you start moving gently in a pool, you’ll begin to find all sort of positions that feel great.

Post weight-training pool sessions

In the pre-pandemic world, stretching in the pool after weight training was one of my favourites (after showering of course).

It helped to reduce any niggles that popped up during the weight session, and was generally a great way to stretch. A hot bath is probably a reasonable substitute (you can stretch a lot in a bath).

Warm pool after chiropractor sessions

As mentioned earlier, my body takes a while to reset after a chiropractor session. And sometimes new discomforts (and emotions) come up.

I found that soaking in the pool helped my muscles feel better, and I believe it improved my recovery time.

See if you can find a local pool, be resourceful and experiment with different ways of positioning your body that feel great.

I’m fortunate that my gym has a beautiful 32 degree swimming pool, with jets and shallow areas. It has seats which I can prop one leg up on to for a really good hip stretch, and different things to hold on to. If you can find one like that, you're on to a winner!

5. Walk

Walking is the most under-rated activity. Long walks were one of Einstein’s daily non-negotiables!

There’s no better way to clear the mind, get the blood pumping, and keep all the muscles and joints moving in a gentle way.

6. Focus on the way you walk

I always swung my leg out wide because of tight muscles and uneven hips. Now I’m concentrating on walking with my leg going straight back and forwards.

I was also advised to take smaller steps.

7. Workout tips for one leg shorter

Years ago a great personal trainer taught me how to workout and keep the pressure off my spine.

My one leg shorter workouts

  • Cycling
  • Rowing
  • Bench press
  • Sitting row
  • Lat pull downs
  • Tricep rope pulldown
  • Dips
  • Bicep curls
  • Body weight squats
These exercises have been my core routine for over a decade, with CONSTANT STRETCHING throughout.

Les Mills classes, focusing on technique

Les Mills classes are particularly good as they go through tons of testing and research. They have medical doctors and experts guiding the design. Then they send the sequences to Penn State University for assessment.

Their aim is to find a sweet spot between safety, technique, and intensity.

In my experience, their routines are much better than trainers who design classes off their own knowledge alone.

I recently started taking pump classes and a few more by Les Mills. I do these with minimal weight, and focus on technique.

This goes against what I said about not putting pressure on my spine, but I decided it’s more helpful than harmful.

The thing I love about these types of classes is that they work all the muscles. My legs, hips, and spine feel awesome after these workouts.

Plenty of stretching and good food afterwards is key for me.

It’s all about listening to my body… taking a break when needed, attention to technique, and constant stretching throughout the class.

Other activities which work for my hips and spine include CX Works, spin, step, and dance classes.

Sidenote: Everyone should dance! You get gentle movement, coordination, fun... And if you're like me, a healthy step outside of the comfort zone.

8. Cut back or eliminate running

I used to love running, but my chiropractor convinced me to cut it out.

He said running isn't for me because it puts so much jolting stress on the lumbar.

He gave some tips if I’m desperate to run, but I don't want to jeopardise the progress with my hips.

Cross trainers are a possible alternative that doesn't put jolting stress on the joints.

9. Yoga

Yoga has been one of the biggest breakthroughs for dealing with my shorter leg.

It's an opportunity to stretch muscles and nurture healthy joints... to breathe into those tight spots... to build strength, and to relax deeply.

There are caveats of course (who to listen to, how to approach it)... but for me, yoga has been a "net gain", and a transformational experience.

Yoga goes across the spectrum from gentle stretching to really challenging yourself.

We all like instant solutions. And for me, I can walk into the studio sore and stressed, follow the instructions, and walk out a new person.

One of the benefits of yoga is that you deal with the whole body.

When you focus on alleviating the pain in one area only, it can create pain in another area. 

But as a whole body practice... when you release tight hips, your back and supporting muscles can also adjust.

I believe that my years of yoga contributed with my current success with a chiropractor. It kept my muscles and joints limber enough to respond well to this new treatment.

What type of yoga is good for one leg shorter?

I've done many types of yoga, but my first love was Bikram.

Bikram Yoga works well for me with one leg shorter because my muscles are extremely tight.

The heat of Bikram Yoga warms the muscles and allows a deeper stretch. For me, this is often better than a cold class. Plus I love the mental aspect.

But be self-aware. 

Some Bikram teachers can be irresponsible and push students too far. Listen to your body, and be ready to say no.

Word of warning: Bikram Yoga is an extreme workout in a very hot room.

My favourite non-Bikram classes are yin-yang, yin, and flow. I find these can all work well with uneven hips.

Experiment and find the styles that suits you.

Also, keep an eye out for good teachers who are patient and pay attention to your individual needs. These are the people you want to guide you.

Tips for practicing yoga with one leg longer than the other

Tell the teacher about your leg length discrepancy before class.

This way, they’ll know to keep an eye on your form. They might offer adjustments, and they’ll understand if you struggle with certain poses.

Plus… when I tell a yoga teacher “I have one leg shorter than the other”, it tweaks their interest. It's a fascinating thing, and they’re often keen to go the extra mile or learn more.

It can be good to remind the teacher before EVERY class. They have many students, so don’t expect them to remember every time.

Do a few exercises before class

Abdominal Flutter Kicks are good to engage the core before class.

Pelvic tilts are great to warm up the hips – an exercise you'll want to do a lot anyway!

Customize your practice the way your body tells you

I used a 2.5 cm block when I first started practicing yoga, in order to even up my hips during class.

This was an idea that I thought might help me, so I tried it, and it did help in the early days. I discussed it with a few good teachers, and they agreed, so I persisted.

I don’t need a block anymore, but it really helped me in the first year.

Listen to your body and let it guide you

This is a rule for life really. 

Everyone has a unique body, and your body is especially unique with one leg shorter.

Listen to your body first and foremost. If it doesn’t feel right, or if you feel discomfort beyond a “good challenge”, then ease off.

If you need to, come out of the pose. Lie on your back breathing into any areas of discomfort, or go into child's pose.

It's about improving your body AND improving your understanding of your body.

Be wary of bad yoga teachers

Yoga gets a lot of criticism (rightly so) for causing injuries.

The thing is, there are bad teachers out there who don’t sequence correctly or who try to push students.

After thousands of classes, I learned to be the driver of how I approach things.

I’ve been in a position where I had to tell a teacher firmly “no” when she was trying to push me into a bad position.

A sense of humour helps

If you lose your balance, be ok with it. Have a laugh, and focus on your own progress.

I could probably stand in tree pose for an hour on my left leg. But if I manage 1 minute on my right leg, it's like I've won a gold medal.

10. Massage

I spent about 2 years getting a massage every month, and it transformed my body.

To begin with I jumped every time the masseuse touched my back. My muscles were so tight and tense.

Today, I don’t jump at all, and my back muscles have relaxed and allowed me to progress more and more.

How to choose a good massage therapist

My massage therapist came recommended and was also a yoga teacher. I felt she was in line with my approach to working with my body.

We talked about my body and communicated constantly... what felt good, what was too intense or not intense enough, and how my body felt during the previous weeks. 

It was like we really worked together, rather than a passive thing.

Over time I learned to trust her judgement, and she learned how my body works.

Massage taught me a lot about how the muscles work and can change.

I tried a few types of massage and different therapists, and settled on a general sports massage and trigger point therapy.

If you’re going down the massage route, don’t choose solely based on price. Find someone who is recommended or has reviews online, and who fits with your approach.

11. Meditation

Meditation may sound like a funny suggestion, but it can help.

The mind-body connection is well accepted in the medical world nowadays, and for me, it has changed my life.

A progressive body relaxation is one of my favourites.

With this, you focus on different areas of the body and progressively relax the muscles.

I often start at my toes and work my way up, relaxing with deep breaths.

When relaxing my hips, often another muscle group (e.g shoulders) will tense up in reaction. Then I’ll move to my shoulders, relax them, then go back to the hips.

It’s about getting in tune with your body, and can make a huge improvement.

Beyond this physical improvement, research has uncovered so many benefits of meditation... for stress, anxiety, immunity, heart health...

It really is one of the best holistic well being activities we can do.

Read my full meditation pain release story here.

12. Float Tanks

To me, floating is brilliant for my body and mind. Inside I do the progressive body relaxation.

For a sublime combination, book a float session after a yoga class.

13. Muscle Pain Relief Cream

This is such a simple and valuable thing to have.

Give yourself a massage with ingredients that help to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

Today I make my own cream, but there are also many good options you can buy.

Good ingredients include:
  • arnica

  • gaultheria essential oil

  • eucalyptus oil

  • peppermint oil

  • lavender essential oil

  • lemongrass oil

Strange Tip: Vicks VapourRub

Before making my own, I occasionally used Vicks VapourRub on my hips, legs and feet. It's a crazy and amazing experience. The camphor and menthol give an intense sensation that relaxes muscles.

I don’t use Vicks much nowadays because it’s made with petroleum, but it's amazing for occasional use.

One extra benefit of massaging yourself is that you get to know your body. You can learn how to treat yourself for long-term pain relief.

14. Sleep in a hip and spine friendly position

Another one that my chiropractor advised me, which has made a big difference.

The best sleeping position he recommended is on the back. This took a long time to get used to, but my hips hurt a lot less now.

The other position recommended was on lying on the side, knees bent and stacked on top of each other. I have an extra pillow to go between the knees for this one.

When you find yourself out of position, gently remind yourself and move back to the new position.

15. Set your work day to be posture friendly

First, don’t sit all day

Sitting is one of the worst things for back and hip health.

I work on the computer all day, so recently adapted my desk with cardboard boxes to stand. You can also buy awesome sit-stand desks, although they’re pricey.

Since beginning this sit-stand routine, my back and hip pain has reduced massively.

I set a 1 hour timer to change position.

Align your monitors for good posture

An extra screen and cardboard boxes or books work great to lift the screen to a more natural position.

If you work on a laptop, get a bluetooth keyboard and mouse so you can set your laptop at a good height. 

Move while you work

Set a timer and stretch for a minute every 30 minutes.

If you stand while working, move your body. Stand on one leg from time to time, stretch those legs back, move your hips, practice a dance step... Anything that keeps your body moving.

16. Inversion Table

I’ve used inversion tables throughout my life, and they really help me.

Of course, it probably isn’t recommended for all cases, so seek advice before using it yourself.

One Final Point... Less intensity, more strategy

It’s a funny moment of life for me right now, and maybe you’ve experienced this too.

Previously I’d go full throttle at most things.

Whether it was playing rugby, playing squash, or sitting at the computer and working for 18 hours straight...

My understanding was that 100% effort was the way to go.

But the truth is, that’s a little simplistic. Whether you have one leg shorter, or another body problem, strategy is needed.

It’s important to learn when to hit the accelerator and when to ease off. To take breaks and stretch and avoid burn out. To know when to ignore people who push too far, or to tell them “no”.

I’m learning that it’s about setting my circumstances for success....

Creating good habits and routines... And understanding that maximum intensity isn’t always the best option.

I hope something here helps you!

If you'd like to keep up with more of my tips, resources, and discoveries, then sign up to my email newsletter.

Be well,
Greg

Summary: My go-to strategies for one leg shorter than the other

  1. Seek good help.

  2. Exercises: Release tension, stretch, and strengthen.

  3. Swimming.

  4. Gentle stretching and exercises in a swimming pool.

  5. Walk.

  6. Adjust workouts to nurture your body.

  7. Cut back or eliminate running.

  8. Yoga.

  9. Massage.

  10. Meditation.

  11. Float tanks.

  12. Muscle pain relief cream.

  13. Sleep in a hip and spine friendly position.

  14. Set your workday to be posture friendly.

  15. Inversion table.

  16. Less intensity, more strategy.

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