Walking (or gait) has never been quite the same for me since my last relapse. It’s such a strange thing to suddenly not be able to do, especially when, physically, your legs are fine. Muscle memory is one of the awesome, yet often underappreciated, abilities of the human brain. Muscle memory is when something that was learned long ago is stored away in a chamber of our brain to be performed on a regular basis with very little conscious effort. It’s automated movement. Breathing, blinking, swallowing, and even walking are all examples of muscle memory actions that happen without so much as a conscious thought. We can do all of those things at the same time as other things without effort because our brain takes care of the coordination. However, when your brain function is suddenly altered and some of those connections are disrupted, muscle memory is sometimes muddled or eliminated all together. That’s exactly what happened to the muscle memory related to the coordination of my right leg and foot.
For whatever reason, the inflammation and destruction of the tissue in my brain affected my right leg and although it’s getting better each day, I continue to have trouble getting it to cooperate. Although I own several canes, I don’t use one on a daily basis and as long as things with my legs don’t get any worse, I probably never will. That’s not to say that walking is totally effortless. You won’t see me wearing heels or shoes that don’t attach to my feet properly. If I’m wearing flip flops, I’m paying extra special attention to the feel of the sole and the strap to make sure they’re still attached to my foot and constantly checking to see that everything is hitting the ground at the right moment and in the right position.
Walking is no longer effortless for lots of people with MS. Although I know it isn’t true, I often imagine myself looking a little like Pinocchio while walking. My motions can sometimes be jerky and uncoordinated as if I’m being controlled by strings from above. I lift my right knee higher than my left in order to provide the extra effort needed to move my leg forward enough to take a step. I use the momentum of the step to carry that side of my body forward. Furthermore, my ankle is weak and when I raise my foot to take a step, it doesn’t lift as high as it should which results in extra drag (and a tripping hazard) on that side of my body. As a result, the soles of my right shoes show more wear than my left. Every motion that my leg, foot, and ankle need to make in order to take a step must be visualized for it to happen correctly. It’s almost as if my right leg isn’t my own, but some robotic attachment that I can control haphazardly with my thoughts.
The best way to describe what walking with MS is like is if you imagine you’re in a public, semi-unfamiliar place such as an airport or a mall where there are lots of people to maneuver around. The cleaning staff has just mopped up a big spill on the floor and you need to get to the other side of it. You can’t go around it so you’re forced to walk on the wet, slick surface. You suddenly become conscious of what your legs and feet are doing in order to prevent a fall. Your steps are more rigid because you’re trying to prevent as little friction as possible. You’re looking for puddles and slowing down as you round a corner. You might even hold your arms out for better balance. When you finally get to the other side, you breathe a sigh of relief because you made it without a fall. That’s what walking is like for me every single day. Of course, you probably don’t notice because I don’t tiptoe around with my arms out for balance but I am making calculated movements with every step and I’m choosing my route very carefully.
All of that caution takes extra effort, which then tires my right leg and the rest of my body. I require more frequent breaks so that my legs and my brain can rest. When I don’t get the breaks that I need, my right leg begins to become even less reliable. My knee buckles and that’s when I turn to the cane. I’ve also found that my gait problems tend to worsen when I’m fatigued or haven’t been getting enough rest. My body and/or my brain doesn’t have enough strength to manage such a coordinated effort and trips/falls become more likely. On those days, I slow down quite a bit and I take the elevator whenever I can because walking is not something that I will ever take for granted again.
I hope this post has helped shed some light on why people with MS might need a cane or a wheelchair one day and not the next. Please feel free to share your questions or your own experiences in the comments section below.
See the original In My Own Words post here.