Mind your language

I’m here in Cincinnati for the Gait and Clinical Movement Analysis Society Annual Meeting. Lovely sunshine makes a change from damp old Manchester.

Anyway today was pre-conference tutorial day and started with a really interesting session with  Art Kuo trying to help us understand induced acceleration analysis. He was particularly concerned to try and demystify the subject using a number of worked examples to show it is possible to get a qualitative feel for the accelerating effect that different joint torques will have on different segments.  He used these to help us understand the sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions that these analyses can lead us to. I found the approach fascinating and will go away and work through some examples myself. I’ll need to think a bit more before I commit any reflections to this blog.

Right at the end he volunteered some fascinating thoughts on terminology that I think are worth passing on immediately. He commented on how some of the terminology we use for accelerations tends to have inappropriate positive and negative connotations and that we need to be very careful that this doesn’t lead us to inappropriate conclusions.

One pair of phrases was “propulsion” and “braking”. We tend to think that propulsion is good and braking is bad but in cyclic walking this is not the case. If  we haven’t changed our speed over a complete gait cycle then, following Newton’s laws, we will have propulsive and braking forces that match exactly (or  more technically propulsive and braking impulses match). All that increasing the propulsive forces does is require an increased demand for braking forces to be applied. To understand how we walk the way we do we really need to have a more nuanced understanding of why braking and propulsive forces are required at all. I agree with Art that using words that suggest that one is beneficial and the other detrimental is not useful.

The other pair was “support” and “falling” (or equivalent ). Again joint torques that apply an upwards (supporting) force to the centre of mass are generally considered to be good whereas those that accelerate the body downwards are considered bad. Again, however, if walking is cyclic then there is no net acceleration of the centre of mass in either direction. I’m less sold on this argument as there is a requirement for the upward forces to average bodyweight over the gait cycle and thus I think there is a sense in which the support mechanisms are more important than those that allow downward accelerations – but I do agree with Art again that if the body accelerates upwards in one part of the gait cycle it must fall in another. Considering one of these as good and the other as bad is not likely to help our understanding.

What Art didn’t propose was alternative words that don’t have these associations. Anyone any ideas?