Osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that can cause pain and stiffness in the joints, which can alter the gait cycle. The gait cycle is the pattern of movement that happens when a person walks.

Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when cartilage breaks down, and damage can occur to the joint. OA can cause pain, stiffness, and a reduced range of motion.

The gait cycle is the repetitive motion that people make when they walk. It includes different stages, from when the foot leaves the ground to when it is up in the air and then makes contact with the ground again.

The physical changes that occur with OA and symptoms such as pain and joint swelling can alter parts of the gait cycle and affect how people walk.

This article looks at how OA can affect the gait cycle and the impact on surrounding muscles and other joints in the body. It also looks at the steps people can take to help prevent or slow down changes to the gait cycle.

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Gait refers to how people walk. Each person will have an individual gait or style of walking. However, everyone has a gait cycle. The gait cycle is the repetitive pattern of motion that occurs when people walk.

There are two phases to the gait cycle:

Stance phase: The stance phase occurs when the foot makes contact with the ground. The stance phase starts when the heel makes contact with the ground and ends when the toe lifts off.

During the stance phase, bodyweight transfers from the lifting leg to the other leg. The stance phase usually makes up 60% of the average gait cycle.

Swing phase: The swing phase occurs when the foot lifts off the ground and the leg is rotating around.

The swing phase starts from the lifting off the toe and ends when the heel makes initial contact with the ground. The swing phase makes up 40% of the average gait cycle.

A complete gait cycle occurs when the heel of one foot makes contact with the ground twice in succession.

When examining the gait cycle, healthcare professionals only look at one leg, usually the right leg, which they refer to as the ipsilateral limb.

OA of the knees, hips, or ankles may affect joint angles, rotation, and coordination during the gait cycle.

Research has found that people with knee OA have a difference in the angles of the knee joint during the gait cycle compared to people without the condition.

Knee OA can also affect coordination in the lower limbs and cause unstable movement during walking.

OA can affect the joints in the feet, which may cause people to alter their gait to minimize pain when walking.

If OA affects multiple joints, it can be difficult for the body to compensate, and it may be difficult for the body to maintain a standard gait.

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The ankle, hip, and knee joints all work together as a chain when people walk, and how one joint moves affects how others move during the gait cycle.

A 2019 study found that knee OA can negatively impact the hip and ankle joints, reducing the range of motion.

The researchers recommend that treatment for knee OA includes care for the ankle joint.

Gait changes may also alter muscle function. A 2019 study suggests that gait changes due to hip OA may affect the gluteal muscles in the buttocks.

In those with hip OA, the gluteal minimus muscle had a higher burst of activity during the stance phase of the gait cycle compared to control participants without OA.

The study recommends that to reduce any disability that hip OA may cause, exercise programs to target gait changes and support the gluteus minimus may be helpful.

People may notice a change in their posture with OA. However, this can be due to stiffness from arthritis rather than gait changes. Poor posture may lead to abnormal gait changes, though.

Learn about exercises and tips for better posture here.

To help prevent or slow down the progression of gait changes from OA, people may find the following can help:

  • Exercise: Exercises that focus on improving balance and core strength, such as tai chi, yoga, or Pilates, may help. Exercises that strengthen the muscles involved in the gait cycle, such as around the hips and knees, are also important.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help to increase strength and improve flexibility. If people have an abnormal gait, they may need to retrain themselves to walk in a more aligned way.
  • Medication: Arthritis medication may help prevent further joint damage and slow down changes in the gait cycle. Anti-inflammatory medications may help to relieve pain and joint swelling, which may also improve gait.
  • Foot care: If people have OA that affects the feet, seeing a foot specialist can help prevent further joint damage. Shoes with a particular design may help to support the feet.
  • Assistive devices: Assistive devices, such as a cane or walker, may help to correct any gait changes and reduce pain, as well as help people to keep their mobility and independence.
  • Surgery: If other treatments are ineffective and gait changes affect everyday life, surgery may be an option. Surgery can help realign a joint or, in some cases, replace it to help manage arthritis and gait changes.

Learn about some natural treatments for OA here.

If people notice any changes in the way they walk, or if they are altering their gait to avoid pain, they will need to see a doctor.

A doctor may assess symptoms, examine the gait, and suggest treatment options, such as exercise programs, medication, or physical therapy.

Seeking treatment may help prevent gait changes from harming other areas of the body, such as adding extra strain or pressure to other joints or muscles.

Taking steps to strengthen the muscles around affected joints, improve balance, and reduce inflammation may help prevent changes to the gait cycle.

Exercise, physical therapy, assistive devices, and arthritis medications may help prevent or slow the progression of gait changes.

If gait changes are impacting other joints or muscles, exercise programs or physical therapy that targets those areas may help prevent further changes.

The Osteoarthritis Action Alliance provides information and contact details for many arthritis-appropriate, evidence-based intervention programs.

OA can cause joint stiffness, pain, and reduced range of motion. It can also lead to muscle weakness and loss of balance. These factors can all affect the gait cycle.

The gait cycle is the pattern of movement that occurs when people walk, from when the foot leaves the ground and lifts into the air to when it makes contact with the ground again.

Pain, loss of flexibility, and joint stiffness can change a person’s gait. This can greatly impact other joints and muscles throughout the body.

Exercise, physical therapy, medications, and assistive devices can all help to correct abnormal gait cycles and prevent any further changes from occurring.