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How the body needs to work to walk properly

heel discomfort

By: Mike Bills, MS PT

Walking is something that we all do everyday whether that be to simply get from one point to another or for exercise or for relaxation. Because walking is such a necessary part of daily life, it’s important to understand what should and should not be happening when we walk is important to help us live a safe and healthy lifestyle. When you walk there are many major parts of your body that need to be working properly together to ensure that the activity of walking is efficient, safe, and beneficial. 

Let’s start with your legs. Your ankles, feet, knees and hips all need to work together. If one of these joints is not properly conditioned or functioning correctly, walking can either be difficult or painful. For example, think about a person who has tight muscles in their legs such as their hamstrings. This will limit their ability to take a normal or full step when they walk. This simple change in their normal walking pattern can cause any number of problems from a noticeable limp to pain or discomfort in their ankles, their knee or even lower back. What is happening when their step length is shorter because of tight hamstring muscles, some other body part is having to work harder to make up for that shorter step. Perhaps their Achilles tendon has to overstretch in order to try to increase your step length and prevent the limp. This would lead to Achilles tendonitis or even worse, a possible Achilles tendon rupture.

A tight hamstring muscle could also cause a hyperextension of the knee and thus be a major contributor to knee problems such as onset or acceleration of arthritis, meniscus problems or tears, general knee pain and even ligament problems in the knee. Tight hamstrings or leg muscles can also cause hip problems such as arthritis, bursitis and IT band syndrome. All of these things come from what you might term to be a “simple lack of flexibility in the legs”.

Moving up from the legs, walking requires that we have good posture of our spines. It’s common for us to see someone walking and their spine is not in the optimal position. This can be an obvious forward bend at the waist or it might be a more subtle shift of the spine when they move their legs.  Typically, this will present itself in one of two ways, and may not be noticeable unless you have a trained eye.

  1. It may present itself by a very slight sideways shift in the trunk when you take a step with one leg.

This is indicative of many things that are and are not happening in the spine. This shift of the trunk is causing excessive wear and stress on not only the bones of the spine, but also on the discs between the spine. This is typically why someone with back pain feels that the pain is worse when they stand or walk because the spine is shifting ever so slightly from side to side and causing irritation to the discs at a specific point in the spine.

2. A person tends to walk slightly bent forward at the waist.

As we walk and our hip muscles get tired. This could happen very soon after starting to walk or take a longer period of time, (but it happens at some point in all of us with walking). As these hip muscles fatigue, other muscles have to start to compensate for this fatigue. By design, this will be our back and abdominal muscles that start to work harder and as they do, they pull us into a forward bent position. Not only does this put added stress on our back, but also on our hips thus increasing the potential for hip problems such as generalized hip pain, hip bursitis, and IT band problems.

Walking is a daily part of life so it’s important to have a good understanding of the anatomy of walking and what needs to happen so that we can make sure we are moving properly and not causing problems. Call our office TODAY at 703-450-4300 if you have any questions or if you are having problems with walking. 

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