Irregular Arm Swing Could Be Early Sign Of Pending neurological disease.

Written by Dr. Shawn Allen

We’ve been saying this for quite some time now, the small subtle gait changes are often the first sign of things to come.

The attached article suggests that scientific measurement investigating irregular arm swing during gait could help diagnose the Parkinson’s disease earlier, giving greater opportunity to slow brain cell damage and disease progression.

In the study below Huang suggests that although we all know that classically the Parkinsonian disease is met with tremors, slow movements, stooped posture, rigid muscles, bradykinesia, speech changes etc, “by the time we diagnose the disease, about 50 to 80 percent of the critical cells called dopamine neurons are already dead,”

Previously, here at The Gait Guys, we have gone deep into discussions of arm swing and the phasic and anti-phasic natures of limb action in gait and how the four limbs interact neurologically, both centrally and peripherally. You can click here for just a sampling of our “arm swing” writings,   

In the study, because arm swing changes are one of the first gait parameters to diminish and decline, and because the decline is typically asymmetrical due to the fact that the disease is an asymmetrical one, the authors compared arm swing magnitude and asymmetry in patients with and without Parkinson’s as parameters to begin the assessments.  Most research to date has commented on the early loss of arm pendular swing but as they said here, “ but nobody had looked using a scientifically measured approach to see if the loss was asymmetrical or when this asymmetry first showed up,“ explained Huang.

What they discovered was that compared to the control group, “the Parkinson’s group showed significantly greater asymmetry in their arm swing (one arm swung significantly less than the other while walking),” and when the subjects walked faster, the arm swing increased but the amount of asymmetry remained unchanged.

On a slightly different tangent of thinking, an aside from the Parkinson’s disease disucussion, how truly sensitive is this limb swing thing you might ask ? Here, read this from this piece (How injury and pain reorganize the brain) we wrote a few years ago.

“Getting a cast or splint causes the brain to rapidly shift its resources to make righties function better as lefties, researchers found.
Right-handed individuals whose dominant arm had to be immobilized after an injury showed a drop in (brain) cortical thickness in the area that controls primary motor and sensory areas for the hand, Nicolas Langer, MSc, of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and colleagues reported.
Over the same two-week period, white and gray matter increased in the areas that controlled the uninjured left hand, suggesting “skill transfer from the right to the left hand,” the group reported in the Jan. 17 issue of Neurology.
The findings highlight the plasticity of the brain in rapidly adapting to changing demands, but also hold implications for clinical practice, they noted.”

This article highlights the rapid changes in motor programs that occur. It does not take long for the body to begin to develop not only functional adaptations but neurologic changes at the brain level within days and certainly less than 2 weeks.

If you know your literature on this topic of arm swing symmetry, you know it is an arguable point.  According to the Lathrop-Lambach study (see link in the article just mentioned above), they mentioned that they feel a 10% baseline asymmetry is the norm.  This symmetry issue is an arguable point that no one is likely to ever win.  We tend to feel, as many others do, that asymmetry can be a major component and predictor to injury, and in today’s topic of discussion a possible determinant of higher level gait disease. 

Still think you should retrain arm swing ? Dive into our blog archives here on arm swing, you will find out that perhaps it is not your best first choice. Discover from our old writings who tends to dictate how much arm swing occurs. 

Shawn Allen, one of the gait guys


“Arm swing magnitude and asymmetry during gait in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease.”
Michael D Lewek, Roxanne Poole, Julia Johnson, Omar Halawa, Xuemei Huang
Gait & Posture, 2009, In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 27 November 2009  DOI:10.1016/j.gaitpost.2009.10.013

Higher Level Gait Disorders

How deep are you willing to take your gait understanding ?

“In conclusion, these data suggest that the gait and balance deficits in higher level gait disorders (HLGD) mainly result from the lesion or dysfunction of the network linking the primary motor cortex and the mesencephalic locomotor region (MLR), brain regions known to be involved in the control of gait and balance, whereas cognitive and ‘appendicular’ hypokinetic-rigid signs mainly result from deep white matter lesions (DWML) that could be responsible for a dysfunction of the frontal cortico-basal ganglia loops.”
J Neurol. 2014 Jan;261(1):196-206. doi: 10.1007/s00415-013-7174-x. Epub 2013 Nov 8.
High-level gait and balance disorders in the elderly: a midbrain disease?
Demain A