The way you walk can be the key to diagnosing physical problems ranging from jaw and back pain to shin splints.

Over our lifetime, we walk an average of 70,000 miles. With perfect posture, a perfect gait and well-designed shoes, our bodies should be able to withstand this beating in wonderful shape. Unfortunately, few of us have been able to attain perfection either in the way we walk or the design of the shoes we wear. The result is a host of aches and pains that tend to multiply as we age and put more miles on our hard-working body.

Some aches and pains, such as corns, bunions, fallen arches and heel spurs are easily recognizable as problems directly associated with foot abuse or maladies. For example, bunions, one of the most common foot problems, are changes in the bone alignment which occur at the great toe joint. Pain, which occurs as the bunion matures with time, can be present in several locations. It may hurt on the inside of the foot over a bump on the base of the toe. The toe itself may become sore, with a callous, or the toe may twist so much that it pushes the next toe out of the way and causes a second deformity called a hammertoe. Bunions are generally caused by the way in which one walks, and are made worse by certain types of shoes.

Other ailments caused by the way in which one walks are not so readily apparent as a foot problem. Knee, hip and back pain, arthritis, and TMJ, a jaw problem that can lead to headaches and neck and back pain, can frequently be traced to a foot joint disorder called Functional Hallux Limitus, or FHL.

FHL is a foot problem that afflicts as many as half of all Americans. It is the failure of the hinge joint located between the toes and the ball of the foot to flex at exactly the right moment during a step. This malfunction can lead to a wide variety of problems, including back, head, knee and hip pain, even when the foot itself is not painful.

How can a simple foot problem of wreak such havoc? The mechanics of the problem become clear if we compare the foot’s hinge joint with the wheel of a wheelbarrow. The wheel’s rolling allows the wheelbarrow to move along. When its forward motion is suddenly halted by an obstacle, the wheel can no longer turn, and it must come to an abrupt halt. The contents of the wheelbarrow, however, fall forward, since they continue to be propelled by the forces of momentum.

Just as the wheelbarrow’s contents are thrown forward when the wheel stops, so is the upper portion of the body when FHL, like an obstacle, blocks the forward motion from below, while momentum causes the upper portion to continue. This bent over posture strains muscles, ligaments, discs and joints of the lower back. When repeated over thousands of steps, injury and pain can develop.

Common styles of gait, such as pigeon-toed, toe-out or a bouncy “bob gait” with very short heel contact, are typically thought to reflect the personal style of the walker. In fact, many of these gaits actually stem from an avoidance of the locked great toe joint and can lead to a host of potential problems, from arthritis to sprained ankles and lower back pain.

Fortunately, FHL and other walking disorders may be corrected through the use of custom designed orthotics that help the foot function properly. Proper foot care will also go a long way toward alleviating the problems associated with FHL. Supportive, yet flexible, footwear is essential, as are socks or stockings that allow the feet to breathe. In addition, regular checkups for your feet and an analysis of your gait can help circumvent any problems before they become any kind of an issue.