Gait Lab helps doctors treat problems with feet, ankles, knees and hips

GREENFIELD — The way you walk could reveal more about you than meets the eye. It can detect underlying medical problems — problems with your feet, ankles, knees and hips. The high-tech “Gait Lab” at the Medical College of Wisconsin works to diagnose and correct these problems.

For several years, Priscilla Zito endured the pain of arthritis in her ankles that prevented her from completing basic, daily activities. “When you can’t walk and it hurts so much it’s like ‘how am I going to get the luggage? How am I going to do this?’ It just changes everything. It was so difficult for me to get around, for me to go to the grocery store. If I forgot something, I didn’t walk back and get it,” Zito said.

Zito went to orthopaedic surgeon doctor Richard Marks to find the one thing that would get her back on her feet. “The foot gait model we use is called a Milwaukee Foot Model,” Marks said.

Using reflective balls called markers, and 12 special infrared cameras, Zito’s gait, or the way she walks, can be captured and computed into a 3D analysis. “Precisely how the bones in the foot and the ankle are moving during the gait cycle,” Marks said.

Dr. Gerald Harris with the Medical College of Wisconsin oversees the research at the Center for Motion Analysis in Greenfield – also know as the “Gait Lab.” He helped develop the cutting-edge technology. “What we actually do is develop mathematical models that mimic the anatomy of people that we test. It gives us twice as much information for presurgical planning and rehabilitation and follow up and things like that,” Harris said.

The technology used in the “Gait Lab” is essentially the same technology used to make special effects in movies like Avatar. “The same types of markers are placed on a body suit, which allows the movie directors to track motion of a whole body. We’re basically taking an Avatar system and applying it to the lower extremities – particularly the foot and ankle,” Marks said.

Frame by frame, the technology tracks strides, joint movement and the force or pressure underneath the foot to deliver calibrations and images that doctors can use to determine what treatment needs to be made to change certain abnormalities. “This allows us to break the foot and ankle down into four segments,” Marks said.

Doctors can evaluate patients with bunions, flat feet and even cerebral palsy.

In Zito’s arthritis case, Marks found that an ankle replacement instead of an ankle fusion was the way to go. Now, after over a year of rehab, Zito can walk with normal speed and normal patterns. “It’s fabulous! I can do everything! I cannot run, and the hardest thing is I can’t wear high heels, but other than that, I’m not uncomfortable. I don’t have to question – is that too far for me?” Zito said.

It is a treatment Marks would not have recommended using typical x-rays and exams. The “Gait Lab” provided the revolutionary reinforcement. “I’m pleased to say she’s walking quite well,” Marks said.

This technology is currently being used in only a few clinics and research facilities nationwide. The long-term goal is to expand the gait analysis to mobile clinics to check golf swings, or how people run.

CLICK HERE for more information on the “Gait Lab.”

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