It’s true. Walking is a complex physical and mental activity that requires subconscious muscular-neural coordination. Your body has to engage at least 200 muscles to take just a single step! Changes in the pattern or speed of your walk may result from pathological deviations in the ways your muscles and nerves communicate with your brain.
To the trained eye, these changes can give insight into your health. Many general practitioners may not pick up on these subtle clues, but your foot and ankle specialist can spot them in your walk from the waiting room.
Read what these gaits can reveal:
1. Waddling – Back Disease
Waddlers shift their upper body from side to side with each step. Walking with a waddle could indicate a degenerative lower back disease, especially in aging patients.
Degenerative disc disease is a type of osteoarthritis of the spine, and it occurs when the discs between the vertebrae wear down or become fragmented or herniated. The nerves in the lower back are squished, which blocks some of the signals between your brain and your buttocks. Your gluteus muscles are unable to lift your pelvis to keep your hips aligned as your walk, which causes a waddling motion.
2. Sticky Feet – Dementia
Feet appearing to “stick” to the floor – as though pulled by magnets – are often a sure sign of dementia or Parkinson’s disease. The pattern may begin as just a cautious and unsteady gait, and could be dismissed as a symptom of old age. However, with dementia you will see the patient’s steps degenerate to the characteristic “magnetic gait.”
Dementia impairs the higher-level brain functions, which hinders signals down the spine to coordinate walking movements. Patients with dementia and Parkinson’s will tend to slow down and have a difficult time lifting their feet to clear the floor. They may take shorter steps, stoop, or lean forward into their walk as well. Parkinson’s patients may also experience the characteristic tremors with their movements.
3. Swaying – Brain Damage
If a patient looks like they might be drunk while walking, this can alert the doctor to possible damage to the cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls voluntary muscle movement and coordination. The cerebellum may be damaged from excessive alcoholism, a tumor, or even a stroke.
The patient may stagger or sway from side to side. They may have a hard time judging distances or knowing when to stop walking, and may be more susceptible to falling.
4. Scissor Gait – Damage to the Spinal Cord
A patient whose knees cross over each other while walking may signal damage to the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a critical pathway for the brain to communicate with the legs, and any damage to it could cause stiffness and weakness in the leg muscles. This results in the knees crossing in front of each other and the toes pointing inward with each step.
The scissor gait is associated with spinal cord damage resulting from traumatic injuries, typical in sports or traffic accidents, and with nerve diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
5. Dragging the Foot – Nerve or Muscle Injury/Disorder
Also known as “foot-drop,” dragging the foot results from an inability to flex the foot upwards. This inability could stem from weakness or damage to the muscles or nerves that aid in dorsiflexion. Patients with foot-drop may raise their knees higher than usual to avoid dragging their feet, or swing their legs around to get their toes out from under them.
The peroneal nerve, one extension of the sciatic nerve, leads from the back of the knee to the shin. If it’s damaged, such as during surgery or a sports injury, it may cause numbness or paralysis in the top of the foot.
Foot-drop is also common to patients with brain and spinal disorders:
As well as degenerative muscular disorders:
If you are noticing a change in your own or a loved one’s pace or pattern of walking, do not ignore it. Call your foot and ankle specialist for an examination. These subtle changes may sometimes feel like the unavoidable progression of aging, but often they are signs of an injury, disease, or disorder that requires swift medical attention. With treatment, many of these conditions can be improved and walking function partially or completely restored.
The physicians at University Foot and Ankle Institute are nationally recognized experts in foot and ankle care and have proudly provided advanced podiatric treatment to Southern California for more than 20 years. For more information, please call (877) 989-9110 or visit us at www.footankleinstitute.com.
Our patients are our number one priority and we consider them, along with our own families and our dedicated staff, to be our greatest assets.
We are driven to get our patients back to their normal activities with the highest level of function, in the least amount of time, using the least invasive treatments possible. From start to finish, we are with you every step of the way.
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