What Is Gait and Why Is It Important to Health?
If you are like most healthy people, you probably don’t give much thought to how you walk. Walking is something you’ve done since infancy, so it is as instinctive as breathing. Unfortunately, this mindlessness can help mask an abnormal or asymmetrical gait that could cause other health conditions.
Often, it isn’t until our ability to walk is compromised by injury or infirmity that we recognize how valuable our mobility is. It is at this point that health care professionals often call on gait analysis to help determine how your walking motion is being affected.
The Fundamentals of Gait
Gait is the way that someone walks. This is a complicated motion involving balance and coordination of many muscle groups in the legs, feet, back and arms. Gait also relies on significant input from the eyes and ears (the inner ear governs our balance). Also, the brain devotes a lot of processing power to maintaining a typical gait.
Gait is actually a very complex activity that involves multiple stance and swing positions. There are 3 stance positions:
- Initial double stance
- Single limb stance
- Terminal double stance
A popular theory among health experts is the “inverted pendulum” theory which posits that the stance leg, i.e., the leg touching the floor, acts as an upside-down pendulum which conserves kinetic energy that may be lost in raising and lowering the body while walking.
While minimizing energy loss is one component of walking, another is dynamic stability. Over the gait cycle, the human body must account for many potentially destabilizing motions. The brain must be making constant adjustments to changing terrain and variations in gait.
Following an injury or the onset of certain illnesses, an individual may develop a gait disorder. In many instances, these are only temporary, but permanent gait dysfunctions can severely interfere with mobility and personal independence.
There are some gait disorders that are common enough to be labeled.
- Propulsive gait—the patient has a stooped, rigid posture with steps that are faster and shorter. This gait is pervasive among people with Parkinson’s disease.
- Spastic gait—people with cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis may exhibit a gait in which one leg is stiff and drags in a circular motion.
- Scissors gait—some cerebral palsy patients may walk with their knees or thighs hitting, with their steps slow and small.
- Steppage gait—this gait is typified by a high leg lift with a floppy foot. This kind of gait is common among stroke victims or those with weakened muscles due to atrophy or a spinal problem.
- Waddling gait—as the name implies, this gait marked by an exaggerated body rotation and side to side propulsion. This kind of gait is most often found in people with muscular dystrophy or a congenital hip dislocation.
Although a gait disorder may strike anyone at any age, it is more common among older people who may have weaker muscles, less reaction time and poorer coordination.
Why Is Gait Important?
Because most of us walk or run almost every day, we don’t attach much importance to how we ambulate. However, health experts recommend that we pay more attention to how we walk because any gait issues could signal hidden problems that might worsen into full-blown health crises.
The real concern is that a minor gait issue now could deteriorate into a problem that could impede your mobility later in life. For example, if there is a hitch in your gait due to a back issue that you are unaware of, you might not get it treated until it has become a serious health condition that could greatly interfere with your personal independence.
You should keep in mind that just because you utilize your legs every day that there isn’t ongoing degradation in function. Even very minor pain or discomfort could create an alteration in your walking mechanics that could lead to improper gait down the road. Imagine identifying a problem with your gait 20,000 steps before it produced pain and immobility in your hips, back or legs.
How to Improve Your Gait
If you have any concerns about your gait, you should ask your doctor to perform a gait analysis upon you. The evaluation should begin with measuring your legs to make sure that they are the same length. This should be followed by an assessment of muscle strength, muscle tone and coordination.
Other biometrics that will be evaluated include your vision and blood pressure if you are older. These tests help rule out any vision impairment or orthostatic hypotension that could be affecting your mobility. Finally, you will be tested for any neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease as well as joint conditions like arthritis.
Your doctor will then perform the gait analysis using a variety of instruments that will measure your step length, step frequency, velocity, and repeatability. They will compare your gait biomechanics with those of comparable build to determine if there are any inefficiencies.
Following the biomechanical evaluation, your clinical team will sit down and identify any gait dysfunctions along with the physiological reasons for the improper motion. Then they will develop a therapeutic program to correct the issue.
Your doctor may recommend one or more of the following therapies to correct a gait issue:
- Physical therapy—working with a physical therapist can help strengthen weak muscles, thereby improving joint function and gait.
- Corrective footwear—if you have legs of unequal length, then a shoe lift may help. Similarly, if you are prone to improper gait, then specially designed shoes could help adjust the motion.
- Assistive devices—if balance or coordination are major issues, it may be necessary to use a cane or walker.
- Medications—for people suffering from arthritis, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, there are drugs that can provide some symptom relief and make walking easier.
- Surgery—as a last resort, you may need to undergo a procedure, especially if your condition requires a hip or knee replacement.
Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care
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