A wide range of injuries and conditions can result in trouble walking or otherwise moving on your feet normally. From conditions such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease to injuries on the sports field or court, these issues can reduce your independence and quality of life. Physical therapists and other qualified professionals provide numerous treatments and techniques to help patients overcome this lack of mobility and lower extremity strength. One of those methods is balance and gait training. Find out more about this treatment option below, including how it works and what to expect during a treatment session.
Balance and gait training refers to a type of physical therapy aimed at improving the functionality of lower extremities.
Balance is how well you can maintain your stability as you stand and move. In short, it’s what keeps you from falling over and helps you move in the direction you mean to.
Gait refers to how you walk. The cycle of your gait is the series of motions that starts when you pick up your foot; it continues through moving your foot forward, placing it on the ground and then picking it up again to take another step.
Injuries and medical conditions can impact your balance and your gait. For example, if you hurt your ankle, your gait may change. You might favor one leg over the other because of pain. This could also impact your balance.
That’s a simple example, but it helps you see how habits developed because of injury impact balance and gait. The strength, range of motion and functionality of your feet, ankles, legs, knees and hips — or lack thereof — also play a role in your balance and gait.
Physical therapy with balance and gait training can help rebuild that strength, range of motion and functionality and provide patients with the tools needed to shed poor habits and adopt healthier ones for better mobility.
You have suffered a stroke or a spinal cord injury, or have recently had an amputation that has affected your mobility.
You are recovering from hip or knee replacement surgery.
You are recovering after suffering a sports injury, such as an ACL tear.
You have chronic back pain and could stand to improve your gait and posture.
The length of time someone is involved in balance and gait training depends on the type of injury or condition being treated, the severity of the impact and the person’s commitment to the training. Physical therapy might be required daily for a few weeks before being reduced to once or twice a week for a few months. In some situations, balance and gait training may only take a few weeks before patients can move on to maintain gains at home.
Each balance and gait training session may take 30 to 60 minutes. Typically, that time includes an evaluation of progress from the previous session, exercises, and feedback and guidance for ongoing home exercises. The physical therapist may adapt the sessions to the needs of the individual, shortening them as required if someone gets easily fatigued or has pain at that point in their progress.
Individuals going through balance and gait training may experience soreness after the exercises, as is the case with other types of physical therapy. This is fairly normal, and you can follow guidance from your provider for dealing with recovery periods. Usually this can be handled with rest, application of ice or over-the-counter pain medications.
Balance and gait training may be used any time there’s a need to retrain all or part of the legs or redevelop the muscle memory needed to walk. It can also be used when there’s any need for improving balance or posture, building endurance, increasing strength of muscles after injury or reducing fall risks.
Some common scenarios where balance and gait training might be employed include:
Physical therapy is typically unique to the individual, and providers may take different approaches depending on the needs, commitment and tolerance levels of the patient.
In the beginning of balance and gait training, the therapist and other staff may provide support, helping to hold up the patient as they work to move their legs. Eventually, the individual may progress to walking with help from assistive devices such as parallel bars, walkers or canes. If an assistive device might be required long-term, balance and gait training may take this into account. The patient may work on exercises designed to help them more appropriately incorporate the assistive device into their gait, for example.
Early on during balance and gait training, the object may be to help develop muscle memory. Patients might lay, sit or stand while their legs are moved by machines or manipulated manually by the physical therapist. Repeating the same motions over and over can help the legs develop muscle memory that supports a better gait down the line.
As balance and gait training progresses, individuals might work on building lower extremity strength, especially in leg muscles. This can include a wide range of exercises, including weight lifting, stretching or leg lifts. In many cases, exercises are also prescribed for completion at home to help develop balance and gait.