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What Role Does Gait Analysis Play in Physical Therapy?

Your gait is the movement pattern and cycle of support your body relies upon as you propel yourself forward. The process involves strength, sensation, muscle balance, and coordination, while one foot is in contact with the ground and the other foot swings forward in a rhythmic motion. The typical adult gait cycle consists of stance, push-off, swing, and heel strike.

Injury, underlying conditions, muscle weakness, or problems with the legs or feet can cause an abnormal gait. A gait that deviates from the norm can cause injury to other areas of the body and increase the risk of falling.

Physical therapists are movement experts trained to recognize how specific gait patterns may be causing pain and mobility problems. Once your physical therapist has analyzed your gait, they will design a treatment plan to restore a healthy gait pattern.

What is a Gait Disorder?

Age, mood, sociocultural background, and other factors may influence your gait pattern. A “normal” walking pattern for you may be slightly different from another person’s pattern.

An abnormal gait can develop at any age and for various reasons. In children, gait abnormalities commonly occur as the child learns to walk. Walking with the toes pointed in or out or walking on tiptoes are gait abnormalities that often occur in children and typically resolve without therapeutic intervention.

However, doctors often recommend physical therapy if a child’s gait abnormality is due to an injury, illness, or developmental issue.

There are many reasons for gait abnormalities in young, middle-aged, and elderly adults. Common causes include:

  • A degenerative disease, such as osteoarthritis
  • A neurologic condition, like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or stroke
  • Musculoskeletal disease or injury
  • Heart failure
  • Respiratory insufficiency
  • Inner ear disorder
  • Medications
  • Obesity
  • Foot conditions or improperly fitting shoes

The Connection Between Gait and Posture

Gait and posture both rely on the strength and balance of core muscles, meaning the muscles that stabilize and support the spine. Weak or underdeveloped core muscles can adversely affect posture. Conversely, poor posture may cause uneven bodyweight distribution, leading to pain in the back, hips, and lower extremities, affecting gait.

Gait and posture abnormalities may also result from a foot or leg pronation, weak or unbalanced muscles, joint dysfunction, injury, or skeletal deformities. When you sit, stand, or move with an abnormal gait or posture, your spine must absorb the shock rather than your legs. Spinal compression, chronic back pain, and referred pain may result from improper posture and body mechanics.

If you have chronic back, neck, hip, leg, knee, or foot pain, a gait analysis can determine if gait or posture abnormalities contribute to your pain or mobility issues.

Why Do Physical Therapists Use Gait Analysis?

Physical therapists use gait analysis to determine gait abnormalities, assess injuries, or help athletes achieve recovery or performance goals. Gait analysis provides data relative to walking speed, balance, range of motion, and reflexes.

By visually observing your gait and body mechanics and using instrumentation to measure body movements and muscle activity, your physical therapist can design a program to correct abnormalities and retrain movement patterns.

Advanced gait analysis may also include:

  • Video motion software, which uses high-speed cameras to record and measure movements while walking or running on an integrated treadmill
  • Electrodes placed on the skin to monitor muscle activity
  • A force platform to calculate the total force of the foot to the ground

Observing your walking or running enables your physical therapist to evaluate your walking pattern for fluidity. Video recordings, which can be slowed or enlarged, make it easier for your therapist to identify abnormalities in your movements.

Tools of gait analysis provide real-time data, so your physical therapist can quickly develop a sound recovery plan. A comprehensive physical examination combined with gait analysis data and a consideration of your personal goals enables your physical therapist to design the most effective treatment plan for your specific situation.

Proper gait, balance, and posture are essential to your ability to move comfortably and safely throughout all stages of your life. No matter what issue you are working on with your physical therapist, it is likely that addressing gait, balance, and posture are components of your treatment plan.

Physical therapy approaches to correct gait may include:

  • Retraining in the movements that make up the gait cycle
  • Exercises to strengthen the core and lower extremities and improve flexibility, range of motion, and balance
  • Proprioception training (ability to move confidently without consciously thinking about each step)

Why Gait Analysis is Essential for Athletes

Athletes often seek physical therapy to recover from injuries, pain, or movement problems or for guidance in improving performance. Physical therapists use gait analysis to identify movement, posture, or other biomechanical issues that may be contributing to injury or adversely impacting performance.

Physical therapists study the components of an athlete’s movements, the pattern and cadence of foot strike, foot placement, stride length, and the stability of the joints while moving forward to identify problem areas.

Whether working with athletes or nonathletes, physical therapists seek to identify abnormal movement patterns contributing to pain, injuries, or impaired performance. Once the PT determines movement abnormalities, they design a program to correct biomechanical issues.

Athletes seeking to improve their running form often request gait analysis, understanding that proper body mechanics is the key to peak performance.

The Importance of Gait Analysis in Physical Therapy

Whether or not you are an athlete, improper movement patterns can cause muscle weakness, tightness, or pain in other body parts, resulting in imbalance. Imbalance in the body increases your risk of injury and pain, restricts joint function, and compromises your ability to move efficiently.

At Athletic Physical Therapy, our skilled gait analysis experts will identify what part of your gait is limited and work to restore the proper sequence to help get you back to a pain-free, active lifestyle.

Our proprietary physical therapy program, the Active Rehabilitation Continuum (ARC,) is proven to expedite recovery while enabling you to achieve the performance level you desire.

Contact Athletic Physical Therapy to learn more.