Back in late 2002 I had a stressful episode that I still remember vividly. Days before Christmas, I was in a department store doing last minute shopping.
I was riding the escalator from the first to the second floor when I felt the toes on my left foot begin to curl. I knew right away that my medications were beginning to wear off.
Those of you with Parkinson’s will recognize this as one of the more anxious moments PWPs experience. We are Cinderella in the final strokes before midnight hearing our medicinal clock tick closer and closer to 12, and we anticipate our impending transformation. Except as PWPs, we don’t see our fine clothing turned into rags, we see our bodies lose the ability to move!
So as I stepped off the escalator, I attempted a Cinderella-like sprint to the nearest bench, racing to get out of sight before I morphed into a more crippled version of myself. Yet the store was packed. All of the seats I saw were taken.
As I continued onward my condition became worse and worse. My back became more curved; my torso pitched further and further forward; the weight of my stooped over upper body began to pull me ahead with increasing speed.
Barely in control, my walk turned into a sporadic shuffle. Small, jabbing steps poured forth, hitting the ground just in time to keep me from toppling over.
Within minutes I found myself lurching from rack to rack, clinging to each one to keep from falling, as I searched desperately for a place to sit. Taken aback shoppers looked at me as if I was a drunkard tearing through the store.
Finally, after creating a miniature wake of destruction, I found an empty bench. Breathing a sigh of relief, I immediately ingested my meds and sat there—still—for the next 40 minutes. When my drugs kicked in, I stood up quietly and walked out of the store.
In the years since that episode I’ve worked hard to develop techniques that can aid me in that kind of situation—simple principles of movement that help me to maintain control as my meds begin to fade.
Today, when I am out and about and I sense my Sinemet is starting to wear off, I use these techniques to override my physical decline. The techniques elongate the time I am able to move just enough to allow me to get home or to a place where I can take my meds and reboot.
In this post we will explore three of these helpful principles. More specifically, we will focus on how to engage your feet with each step. Doing so will allow you to take back control of your walk, remodeling your Parkinsonian shuffle into a more graceful, stable stride.
1) Feet First
We PWPs want to initiate our walk by leaning forward with our torso and letting the feet catch up. Not good. This leads to falls and that torrential spilling forth of little steps called festination that I experienced in the department store.
When, by contrast, you lead with your feet, your body remains more upright and you begin to use your feet to move you forward instead of to stop you from falling. You go on the attack as opposed to on the defense.
One way to remind yourself to have your feet start your walk is to use images. One that I have found useful is very exaggerated and comic: R. Crumb’s cartoon Keep on Truckin.
Of course, you can’t imitate the posture in the drawing too literally. Leaning back that far will put you in danger of toppling in the other direction. But this image cues me to step forward with my heel first with no ambiguity.
If R. Crumb is not to your taste, you might try envisioning yourself as a fashion model sashaying down the runway.
The typical model’s slightly backward tilt should encourage your feet to go before your torso, and give you an added sense of elegance, always useful in encouraging uprightness.
2) Lead with your Heel
When you begin your walk with your heel to the ground, it sets you up to engage your entire foot with each step.
Your power when you walk comes from the extent to which your foot grabs and then pushes off the ground. Starting your stride with your heel initiates the first phase of this seize--roll--push sequence. Grab the ground with each step.
To practice your form you can slow down and walk quietly, paying close attention to how your foot interacts with the floor. Or you can look at the video below.
3) Push off your toes
Pushing off your toes as you finish your stride adds fluid power to your walk. It also propels your foot forward into a bigger next step, making it easier to extend your leg forward and lead with your heel.
There’s a reason professional sprinters start a race pushing off their toes. It gives them their power, and it can propel you forward too!
Feet first, lead with your heal, roll through, push off your toes--these ideas will help carry you through your most paralyzed moments.
Once you master walking with fluid rhythm from heel to toe, go ahead and combine your new walk with your music as I described in the previous post: Music & Gait. Together they should form a potent combination.
Lastly, I want to remind you, make sure to practice these walking principles when on your medication as well. Performing these techniques when you can move well will neurologically reinforce proper movement patterns. This will make it easier to walk properly when you find yourself "off."
As always, if you have any questions or comments, write them below. I'd love to hear them!
(And, of course, if you like this post, go ahead and share it on social media. Or better yet, forward it to your doctors, PTs, OTs, and fellow PWPs!)
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