The Way You Strut
When you think about it, it’s pretty clear that how we feel affects the way we walk. A twisted ankle will cause a limp. Arthritis in the hip will lead to reduced range of motion and a shorter stride. But, did you know that the way you walk can affect your joints and spine? That’s right—it goes both ways! So, that pain in your lower back could be caused by changes to your gait, which were caused by that knee injury in college. Confusing? Let’s see how it works.
How can problems in one joint cause pain elsewhere?
When you walk, each step results in a force equal to five times your body weight. If there’s something a little “off” with your gait—whether it’s due to poor posture, flat arches in your feet or shoes that don’t fit properly—your body is thrown out of alignment, which means a whole lot of force going through your body at a less-than-ideal angle. As a result, other parts of your body have to compensate for the problem, working harder and perhaps in different ways than they were designed to.
Example: Problem with the hip joint
Our hips are unique, in that with each step we take, the hip joint moves in three separate ways. Problems in the hip can cause problems with other joints in the body, particularly the spine. For example:
- When you have reduced range of motion in one hip, the spine has to move more than it should to compensate and keep you mobile. As time goes on, the nerves in the spine are compressed and inflammation increases, which can lead to lower back pain and sciatica.
- If one hip is weaker than the other, or it can’t bear weight, the whole body will tend to lean to that weaker side when walking. This causes similar nerve compression in the spine, but just on that one side.
What else can cause gait changes?
It’s not just pain or weakness that can cause gait abnormalities. Other possible causes are:
- A fear of falling, which is common in the elderly and disabled
- Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke or multiple sclerosis
- Muscular conditions, such as muscular dystrophy
- Bone conditions, like osteoporosis or osteomalacia
- Circulation problems, such as peripheral vascular disease
- Conditions that throw off your balance, like an inner ear infection
How can gait disturbances be treated?
If you’re experiencing unexplained back pain, or if you know that your gait has changed, talk to your doctor. Sometimes, all it takes to “fix” a gait problem is a good set of insoles in your shoes. Other treatment options may include physical therapy or a device to help you walk, like a cane or crutches.