By the end of this lesson, students will be better able to define what gait is and how gait is analyzed by medical professionals. They’ll also be able to describe four different types of abnormal gait and link gait abnormalities to physiologic dysfunction.

What Is Gait?

Gait is, quite simply, the pattern of how a person walks. Medical professionals can tell a lot about a person’s health from their gait, including if they have neurologic, muscular, or skeletal problems.

Gait has two phases: swing phase and stance phase. Swing phase occurs when the foot is not in contact with the ground, beginning when the foot leaves the ground and ending with the heel strike of the same foot. The stance phase is comprised of all the activity that occurs when the foot is in contact with the ground, beginning with heel strike and ending with toe off of the same foot. The stance phase accounts for 60% of the gait cycle, leaving 40% of the gait cycle to the swing phase.

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The way a person moves his or her body through the two phases usually provides enough information for a medical professional to diagnose a gait abnormality. This is known as observational gait analysis. Many parameters are considered during observational gait analysis, including step length, stride length, speed, trunk rotation, and arm swing. If a person’s gait abnormality is more complex, a medical professional can further analyze gait using various photographic and video data, 3D imaging, measurements from sensors placed on the body, and other modalities that go beyond observational gait analysis.

Types, Abnormalities, and Analysis

Let’s discuss four common gait abnormalities that can be diagnosed through observational gait analysis:

First is antalgic, a type of gait that a person develops as a way to avoid pain while walking (antalgic = ‘anti-‘ + ‘alge’ meaning ‘against pain’). You might see an example of an antalgic gait as a football player limps off the field after being tackled.

Hemiplegic gait is most commonly seen after a person has a stroke. ‘Hemi’ means half, and ‘plegia’ means paralysis, so a person with a hemiplegic gait has complete or partial paralysis on one side of the body. On the affected side, the person’s arm will likely be flexed and held close to the body, while the weak leg will be held in extension and circumduction, or be dragged around in a semicircle during the swing phase.

A medical practitioner can use observational gait analysis to help identify the pathology causing a gait abnormality. For example, if a stroke patient has complete or partial paralysis of the arm and leg on the left side of the body (left-sided hemiplegia), the pathology can be localized to the right side of the brain that controls motor functioning since the side of the brain affected is typically the opposite to the side of the body the gait is evident. Pretty interesting, huh?

Ataxic (or cerebellar) gait: Have you ever seen a person with alcohol intoxication try to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line? Likely that person was clumsily swaggering and staggering to and fro. That is what an ataxic gait looks like. This gait abnormality is caused by damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance and coordination of movements.

Finally, there is neuropathic gait, also known as steppage gait or equine gait because the person has to lift his or her affected leg or legs high enough during walking that the foot does not drag on the floor, similar to the way a horse walks. A patient with damage to nerves in the leg, such as L5 radiculopathy (damage to the 5th lumbar nerve root) may walk with this type of gait. Neuropathic gait is also seen in people with long-standing uncontrolled diabetes mellitus.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we learned that gait refers to the way animals move their extremities during locomotion. To put it simply: Gait is the way we walk. Medical professionals observe gait using observational gait analysis to learn more about a person’s health, including their neurologic, muscular, and skeletal functioning.

We discussed four common gait abnormalities that can be diagnosed through observational gait analysis: antalgic, hemiplegic, ataxic (or cerebellar), and neuropathic. Medical professionals have the knowledge to link the different types of gait abnormalities to physiologic dysfunctions, like injuries and disease processes, to help guide treatment.

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is for your information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.