Walking into trouble
Abnormal gaits can be diagnostic of serious underlying conditions, affecting the locomotory systems or the brain systems that control them
Dementia, for example, can lead to problems with walking. Some patients walk very slowly, as if their feet are glued to the floor. This may be a sign that they have ‘normal pressure hydrocephalus’, which occurs when there is decreased absorption of the cerebrospinal fluid in the brain and accounts for 6 per cent of dementias – an important diagnosis because the condition can be reversed.
Sometimes unusual gaits have no obvious physical cause – so-called psychogenic gait disorders. These may affect elderly people who are afraid of falling, but are also seen in some young people.
The Greek term astasia-abasia, introduced by Paul Blocq in the 19th century and literally meaning an inability to stand and to walk, is sometimes used to describe such cases. The syndrome is classified as a conversion disorder, where psychological stresses are ‘converted’ into physical symptoms.