Male professional studying a patient's gait analysis in physical therapy

What is Gait Analysis and Its Applications for PTAs?

Learn why gait analysis is crucial for diagnosing and treating a wide range of musculoskeletal and neurological conditions.

Male professional studying a patient's gait analysis in physical therapy

Gait analysis is a systematic method used to evaluate an individual’s walking pattern. This process involves observing and measuring step length, walking speed, rhythm, and the symmetry of movements. The primary purpose of gait analysis is to identify any deviations or abnormalities in the walking pattern, which can provide valuable insights into various underlying health conditions.

The significance of gait analysis is crucial for diagnosing and treating a wide range of musculoskeletal and neurological conditions. These conditions can include arthritis, stroke, cerebral palsy, musculoskeletal injuries, and Parkinson’s disease. By analyzing the gait, physical therapists can determine the specific areas of impairment, such as muscle weakness, joint stiffness, or balance issues. For example, after a stroke, patients often undergo gait training to regain walking ability. By analyzing changes in gait patterns over time, therapists can adjust the treatment approach to maximize recovery. Read up on how to become a Physical Therapist Assistant to learn the qualifications, requirements, and responsibilities of this in-demand role in the healthcare industry.

What is Gait Analysis

What Does Gait Analysis Tell You?

The gait cycle, which refers to the sequence of motions occurring between two consecutive initial contacts of the same foot, is commonly divided into two main phases: the Stance Phase and the Swing Phase.

Stance Phase (60% of the gait cycle):

  • Initial Contact (or Heel Strike): This is the beginning of the stance phase when the heel of one foot touches the ground.
  • Loading Response (or Flat Foot): Immediately follows initial contact. The foot flattens and the body begins to move over the standing foot.
  • Midstance: The body is directly over the standing foot, and this phase marks the halfway point of the total stance phase.
  • Terminal Stance (or Heel Off): Begins as the heel of the stance foot lifts off the ground, and the body moves ahead of the foot.
  • Pre-swing (or Toe Off): The final part of the stance phase, where the toe of the stance foot leaves the ground, initiating the swing phase for this foot.

Swing Phase (40% of the gait cycle):

  • Initial Swing: The foot is lifted off the ground and the leg begins to move forward.
  • Midswing: The swinging leg moves directly underneath the body, and the knee continues to bend to shorten the limb for clearance.
  • Terminal Swing: The leg extends; preparing for initial contact and the start of the next gait cycle.

Normal gaits are characterized by symmetric stride lengths and arm swings. The foot progression angle and base of gait are consistent, and there is no excessive muscular activity. Abnormal gait patterns may include limping. This is due to pain or weakness most likely due to trauma or injury and is characterized by a shorter stance phase on the affected side. Toe walking is characterized by walking on the toes or ball of the foot without the heel touching the ground. Lastly, asymmetrical steps may result from a leg length discrepancy, muscle weakness, or joint stiffness. It’s characterized by different step lengths or walking rhythm between the left and right legs.

In clinical settings, gait analysis is crucial for identifying these abnormalities, which can be indicative of underlying conditions such as neurological disorders, orthopedic issues, or developmental problems. Treatment often involves physical therapy, orthotics, or surgical interventions, depending on the cause and severity of the abnormal gait.

Close up of a person measuring their gait analysis using a foot plate

Gait Analysis Techniques

Visual Observation of Gait

The traditional method of visually assessing gait, often referred to as observational gait analysis, involves a clinician or therapist watching a patient walk in a controlled environment, such as a clinic or a laboratory. This method is widely used due to its non-invasive nature and the minimal equipment required. The assessment typically includes observing the patient from multiple angles (front, back, and sides) and may involve walking at different speeds or on different surfaces. The key elements assessed in traditional gait analysis include:

  • Symmetry: Observing the bilateral symmetry of gait, looking for differences in limb movement.
  • Stride and Step Lengths: Assessing the length of strides and steps.
  • Cadence: The rate at which a person walks, usually measured in steps per minute.
  • Foot Angle: The angle of the foot relative to the walking direction during stance.
  • Arm Swing: Observing the natural swing of the arms, which aids in balance.
  • Posture: Evaluating the overall posture and spinal alignment during walking.

Limitations of Traditional Gait Analysis:

The biggest limitation of traditional gait analysis is the subjective nature of the assessment. Different clinicians may perceive and interpret the same gait patterns differently. Traditional methods lack precise quantitative data. Measurements such as stride length and walking speed are estimated rather than accurately measured. Fine details, such as slight asymmetries or subtle changes in joint angles, can be easily missed. In addition, observational analysis is limited in assessing dynamic gait aspects, such as joint forces and muscle activation patterns. It is also challenging to reproduce the exact conditions and observations in follow-up sessions, which can be crucial for tracking progress over time. Overall, the accuracy of the assessment heavily depends on the experience and expertise of the clinician and patients generally do not receive objective feedback about their gait, which can be helpful for understanding and improving their condition. However, the traditional method remains a valuable tool, especially in settings where advanced technologies are not available.

Due to the limitations of traditional methods of analysis, there has been a shift towards more objective gait analysis methods, such as using motion capture systems, force platforms, and wearable sensors. These tools provide precise, quantitative data about various aspects of gait, allowing for a more comprehensive assessment and targeted interventions. Let’s look at them in more detail below.

Instrumented Gait Analysis

Advanced techniques in gait analysis involve the use of technology to provide a more detailed and quantitative assessment of a person’s walking pattern. These techniques are crucial in fields like rehabilitation, sports medicine, orthopedics, and neurology. Here’s an overview of some of these technologies:

  • Motion Capture Systems: Motion capture systems use cameras to track markers placed on the individual’s body. The markers are often placed at key anatomical landmarks, then the cameras capture the movement of these markers, creating a 3D model of the person’s movements. These systems provide detailed information about joint angles, velocities, and accelerations and are especially useful for analyzing the kinematics (movement patterns) of gait. They offer high accuracy and the ability to analyze complex movements in a 3D space.
  • Force Plates: Force plates are devices that measure the forces exerted by the feet onto the ground. They are typically embedded in the floor or a treadmill. They provide information about ground reaction forces, which are essential for understanding the dynamics of gait, including weight distribution and balance. Force plates are crucial for analyzing the kinetics (forces involved) of gait, helping to assess aspects like joint loading.
  • Wearable Sensors: These include devices like accelerometers, gyroscopes, and pressure sensors that can be worn on various parts of the body. These sensors collect data on movement and forces experienced by the body. Wearable sensors are versatile and can be used to assess gait in real-world settings outside the lab. They can provide data on step count, step length, walking speed, and symmetry of gait. These sensors are particularly useful for long-term monitoring and are less obtrusive, allowing for more natural gait analysis.

These advanced techniques provide objective, quantitative data that can be used for precise assessment and tracking progress over time, allowing for a more comprehensive analysis of gait that cannot be observed visually. The detailed data from these tools can be used to develop more customized and effective treatment plans in rehabilitation. Additionally, they are essential in research for developing a better understanding of gait abnormalities and in designing prosthetics and orthotic devices. In sports, these techniques help in optimizing performance and preventing injuries by identifying abnormal movement patterns.

Close up of a man measuring a woman's gait

How Physical Therapist Assistants Use Gait Analysis

Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) employ gait analysis as a fundamental tool to evaluate patients, identify abnormalities, and establish baseline data for treatment planning. During the initial assessment, a PTA will observe the patient’s walking pattern, noting any deviations from normal gait, such as limping, asymmetry, or variations in stride length and speed. This observational analysis is often supplemented with advanced technologies like motion capture systems or wearable sensors, providing detailed quantitative data about the patient’s gait. Establishing baseline data provides a point of reference against which the patient’s progress can be measured.

The findings from gait analysis are integral in developing personalized treatment plans tailored to the patient’s unique needs. PTAs utilize the detailed information obtained to focus on specific issues in the patient’s walking pattern. For instance, if the analysis reveals an uneven weight distribution while walking, the treatment plan may include exercises to strengthen the weaker leg and improve balance. In cases where the gait analysis shows limited range of motion in a joint, targeted stretching and mobilization exercises can be incorporated into the treatment plan. This personalized approach ensures that the interventions are directly addressing the patient’s specific deficits, leading to more effective and efficient rehabilitation. Additionally, PTAs may use the data to educate patients about their gait abnormalities, fostering a better understanding of their condition and the importance of specific exercises or interventions.

Gait analysis plays a crucial role in monitoring the effectiveness of rehabilitation interventions. This ongoing assessment ensures that the therapy remains relevant and effective, adapting to the patient’s progress. For example, if subsequent gait analyses show improved symmetry or stride length, the PTA can progress the patient to more advanced exercises or focus on other areas that require attention. Conversely, if the analysis indicates a plateau or decline in certain aspects of the patient’s gait, the PTA can modify the treatment approach accordingly. This dynamic process of assessment and adjustment is crucial in providing optimal care, ensuring that the patient is continuously progressing towards their rehabilitation goals.

Conditions and Populations Benefiting from Gait Analysis

Orthopedic Conditions

Gait analysis is a critical tool in the assessment and treatment of orthopedic issues, including joint disorders, arthritis, and musculoskeletal injuries. For joint disorders and arthritis, gait analysis can pinpoint specific abnormalities like altered stride or asymmetric weight distribution, shedding light on the biomechanical impact of these conditions. This information is crucial for early detection, monitoring disease progression, and preventing secondary complications. In the case of musculoskeletal injuries, gait analysis provides essential baseline data for designing targeted rehabilitation programs, helping to identify compensatory patterns and guide the progression of exercises. It also plays a significant role in monitoring treatment effectiveness, ensuring that interventions are adapted to the patient’s changing needs. In essence, gait analysis not only aids in the initial assessment of orthopedic conditions but also informs the ongoing management and rehabilitation strategies, leading to more effective and personalized patient care.

Neurological Conditions

Gait analysis plays a pivotal role in neurological rehabilitation, particularly for conditions like stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injuries. In stroke patients, it aids in assessing the extent of motor impairment and asymmetry in gait, which are common after a cerebrovascular event, facilitating targeted rehabilitation strategies aimed at restoring balance and walking ability. For individuals with Parkinson’s disease, gait analysis helps in identifying specific issues such as shuffling steps, reduced arm swing, and freezing of gait, enabling the development of tailored interventions to improve mobility and reduce the risk of falls. In cases of spinal cord injuries, it provides crucial insights into altered gait patterns due to muscle weakness or paralysis, guiding the use of assistive devices and therapeutic exercises to enhance walking independence and efficiency. By offering objective, quantitative data on gait parameters, gait analysis in neurological rehabilitation enables a more precise understanding of the impact of these neurological conditions on locomotion, leading to more effective, individualized treatment plans and improved outcomes for patients.

Physical Therapist Assistant helping a pediatric patient use exercise bands


Gait analysis holds significant value in assessing and treating gait abnormalities in children with developmental disorders or congenital conditions. For children with conditions such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or clubfoot, gait analysis provides a comprehensive evaluation of walking patterns, identifying deviations from typical development that might not be easily noticeable. This information is crucial for early intervention, as addressing gait abnormalities during childhood can have a profound impact on a child’s overall mobility and quality of life as they grow. The objective data obtained from gait analysis enables healthcare professionals to tailor treatments and interventions to the specific needs of each child. This may include physical therapy, orthotic devices, or, in some cases, surgical interventions, all aimed at improving gait efficiency, balance, and independence. This approach ensures a more dynamic and responsive treatment plan, which is particularly important in the rapidly changing and developing bodies of children. In essence, gait analysis in pediatric cases is more than just a diagnostic tool; it is integral to creating personalized, effective treatment strategies that can enhance mobility and positively impact a child’s life trajectory.

Challenges and Considerations of Gait Analysis

Gait analysis, while highly beneficial, does come with certain limitations that can impact its accessibility and effectiveness. One of the primary limitations is cost. Advanced gait analysis technologies, such as motion capture systems and force plates, can be expensive to purchase and maintain. This cost factor can limit the availability of these technologies, particularly in smaller clinics or resource-limited settings. Additionally, the need for specialized equipment and space to conduct gait analysis can further restrict its use to well-equipped facilities, potentially creating a barrier to access for some patients.

Another significant limitation is the need for expertise in interpreting the results. Gait analysis generates a large amount of complex data, and accurately interpreting this data requires a high level of expertise in biomechanics and gait pathology. This necessitates trained professionals, which can add to the cost and may not be readily available in all healthcare settings. Misinterpretation of gait analysis data could lead to incorrect diagnoses or inappropriate treatment plans, negating the potential benefits of the analysis.

In terms of ethical considerations, the use of advanced technology in gait analysis raises important issues related to patient privacy and consent. When conducting gait analysis, especially with video or motion capture systems, it’s vital to ensure that patient data is stored securely and that their privacy is maintained. This is particularly important given the sensitive nature of medical data and the potential for misuse. Additionally, obtaining informed consent is a critical step, not only for legal compliance but also for maintaining trust and ethical standards in patient care. Ensuring patient autonomy and confidentiality is paramount, especially as technology continues to advance and become more integrated into healthcare practices.

Physical Therapist Assistant high fiving an elderly patient

Enroll in a Physical Therapy Assistant Program Today!

Gait analysis stands as a cornerstone tool for Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) in enhancing patient outcomes and the overall quality of rehabilitation. It provides a comprehensive understanding of a patient’s walking patterns, enabling PTAs to identify specific abnormalities and tailor treatment plans precisely. This personalized approach ensures that each patient receives focused care, addressing their unique needs, which is critical in achieving optimal rehabilitation outcomes. Gait analysis also allows for the objective monitoring of a patient’s progress over time, enabling PTAs to adjust treatment plans as needed and ensure that patients are on the most effective path to recovery. This not only improves the functional mobility of patients but also contributes to a higher quality of life.

To maximize the benefits of gait analysis in physical therapy, ongoing professional development is essential for PTAs. Staying abreast of the latest advancements in gait analysis technologies and techniques enhances a PTA’s skill set and ensures that they are providing the best possible care. Additionally, collaboration with other healthcare professionals, such as physical therapists, orthopedists, and neurologists, is crucial. Such interdisciplinary collaboration leads to a more comprehensive understanding of a patient’s condition and a more cohesive approach to treatment.

Enrolling in Provo College’s Physical Therapist Assistant program offers a significant opportunity for aspiring PTAs. This program emphasizes not only the foundational knowledge of physical therapy but also focuses on practical, hands-on experience about the latest technologies and methods in gait analysis, preparing graduates to effectively assess and treat a wide range of conditions in future patients. Explore top physical therapist assistant jobs to learn more about the skills and knowledge necessary to excel in the dynamic field of physical therapy.