The body is designed to work as one. Your neck or back pain could be coming from somewhere else entirely!

Whenever we are standing, walking, or running, our feet are the first point of contact that make it possible for us to stay vertical. The lower limbs are the foundation of the body, which means the body can only be as optimal as its foundation. This is why we often hear that pain in the low back can be a result of an issue found at the feet, ankles, or elsewhere seemingly unrelated in the lower body. It’s easy for us to consider walking to be a mundane task and take it for granted. In reality, walking is simple when every component involved is functioning optimally, but becomes exponentially more complex when a single piece in the chain begins to struggle.

Dysfunction feeds more dysfunction

The cause for dysfunction in a particular joint is numerous. Major trauma can compromise muscular and joint function immediately while overuse injuries can take weeks or months to cause noticeable problems. In joints where stability is required, minor injuries such as a small ankle sprain can create subtle dysfunction in the area, making the ankle more prone to injury and alter gait enough without making it obvious.

In the presence of poor flexibility, weakness, or dysfunction in the joints of the lower extremity, our gait, or walking pattern, becomes altered to become less efficient because a motion can only be as optimal as its weakest link. When a weak link exists, at least a couple other muscles will need to work harder in order to keep the system moving. Because the body is intelligent, it does its best by creating compensations. For example, if the tibialis anterior muscle, located at the front of the shin, is weak or unable to contract properly in order to lift the foot upward, the body will alter gait patterns in order to keep the body moving. Either the foot drags on the floor with each step, forcing the smaller surrounding muscles to perform a task they’re not meant to do, or the joints of the knee and/or hip will need to do more work in order to raise the foot high enough off the floor to clear the toes from the ground, akin to stair stepping. This creates muscle imbalances relative to the unaffected side and encourages poor movement patterns that will eventually affect the joints and areas found above and below the original issue.

What does walking, or my gait cycle, have to do with my pain?

Because we walk nearly everyday, joints and muscles that aren’t functioning just right continue to work dysfunctionally, and eventually become ingrained in the brain. This means that the longer a dysfunctional muscle persists, the more difficult it will be for the body to return to an optimal state. When we walk, we utilize nearly all the muscles of the lower extremity either concentrically or eccentrically with each step. For example, concentric contraction of the gluteus maximus muscle, found in the buttock, shortens itself so that it can pull the leg behind us. In contrast, this muscle must also be able to lengthen in a controlled manner when we pull the leg from behind us to in front of us; this is eccentric contraction. With gait, every major muscle found at the hip, knee, and ankle must be able to contract both concentrically and eccentrically when needed in order to provide smooth, energy-efficient gait. Because so many joints and muscles are involved in this simple task, the possibility of at least one component malfunctioning is greater.

What to do about it

In order to keep our body a well oiled-machine, it is important to maintain our health and function by addressing all components contributing to any particular issue. Dysfunction anywhere in the lower body can cause issues anywhere above it, from the low back all the way up to the neck. The old saying, “use it or lose it,” certainly rings true. Because many of us are becoming more and more sedentary, taking twenty minutes out of the day for a short walk on a regular basis can be highly beneficial in making sure that muscles and joints retain their function. If it turns out that your body needs further assistance to recover from dysfunctional movement patterns, it is important to find a practitioner that can assess both the motions of the joints themselves as well as the efficiency of the muscles that act upon them. If you’re near the San Francisco Bay Area, you can book a free consultation in person or over the phone to assess your symptoms and see if ProActive Chiropractic care is the right fit for you.