What is gait and why do physical therapists talk so much about it?

What is gait and why do physical therapists talk so much about it?

June 17, 2020

Gait, or the pattern of walking, is extremely important to our physical well-being. Over the course of a lifetime, the average person takes 216 MILLION steps. That’s a lot of walking!

Gait matters because it’s a repetitive task, and our bodies are able to do it well and generally without pain or stress if the gait pattern is normal – but when something throws off that pattern it can cause pain and injury that sometimes appears right away or sometimes takes its toll much later down the line.

When taking a step, 30+ muscles turn on and off – usually without us having to think too much about them. When physical therapists assess gait, we look at each phase of the action on each side. Taking a step involves the right foot hitting the ground, absorbing weight, and transferring the weight from the back of the body to the front – at the same time, the left foot propels us forward and swings through, getting ready for it’s turn. The arms alternate swings, and our entire trunk rotates in this process. With every step, we stand on one leg for 60% of the time – there’s a lot of balance that goes into walking! And balance takes a lot of coordination and strength in and of itself.

With an injury as common as an ankle sprain our gait patterns change. If the ankle sprain heals correctly and quickly, our gait pattern should return to normal – but if the ankle stays stiff our bodies can pick up a new pattern of walking – which changes how muscles as high up as our neck respond in every single step. If we don’t return to a balanced and natural walk, the likelihood of osteoarthritis in the knee or hip increases because of unequal pressure now put into a different joint, and muscles throughout our entire body do more work than they are used to and can have tension and pain as a result.

I know that after I sprained my right ankle hiking a few months ago I still find myself shortening the step on my left foot every once in a while. There’s still some scar tissue restricting my ankle motion and some weakness still in the right foot. I have re-committed to my own physical therapy exercises and look forward to returning to running and long distance hiking without fear of reinjury or long term consequences. Even physical therapists sometimes struggle to do our exercises regularly!

Walking is our most common mode of exercise – we get out of bed and start walking every day. If you have pain with walking, there are a lot of ways to try to solve this: adjusting your muscle strength and tone, consciously paying attention to not “favoring” one side, training your balance, adjusting footwear choices, and more. If you don’t have pain while walking, but feel pain or stiffness somewhere in your body there’s a good chance your gait is either a culprit or affected by this condition.

So why do physical therapists care so much about gait? Because it affects everything we do – and we can improve so much of our activities and symptoms by helping our clients walk better!

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