What is the appropriate evaluation and treatment of children who are "toe walkers"?

M. Patrice Eiff, Elizabeth Steiner, Dolores Zegar Judkins

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Idiopathic toe-walking is a childhood condition of unknown cause characterized by persistence of a tiptoe gait pattern without evidence of neurologic, orthopedic, or psychiatric disease. The incidence in the general population is not known. Children with idiopathic toe-walking usually have limited ankle dorsiflexion and are able to walk with a heel-strike for short periods when asked to do so. Longitudinal data is lacking to determine whether ankle equinus is the primary cause of idiopathic toe-walking or is a consequence of chronically walking on tiptoes. A family history of toe-walking ranges from 30% to 71% in the literature and is considered a characteristic of idiopathic toe walking. Evaluation. An important element of the evaluation of idiopathic toe-walking is to distinguish it from neuromuscular disorders associated with toe-walking, such as mild cerebral palsy. Case series with small numbers of subjects (range=27-41) have used gait electromyography (EMG) to distinguish cerebral palsy from idiopathic toe-walking. The overlap in gait EMG values in cerebral palsy and idiopathic toe-walking precludes its use as a differentiating diagnostic test. The only aspect of EMG testing that has been useful in differentiating cerebral palsy from idiopathic toe-walking is gastrocnemius coactivation during resisted knee extension-a finding indicative of neurologic pathology. Kinematic analysis and observation of gait and measurement of ankle range of motion have been studied as diagnostic tools to differentiate idiopathic toe-walking from cerebral palsy. In the largest of these 4 studies (23 children with mild cerebral palsy and 22 with idiopathic toe-walking), maximal knee extension occurred at ground contact in the idiopathic toe-walking group whereas in the mild cerebral palsy group, the knee was flexed at ground contact. Measurement of ankle range of motion is not reliable in distinguishing between idiopathic toe-walking and cerebral palsy groups. Treatment. Simple observation, physical therapy, serial casting, and Achilles tendon lengthening surgery have been studied in the treatment of idiopathic toe-walking. In the largest case series (n=136), the frequency of toe-walking decreased in 51% of those in both the observation and casted groups. In this same study, the surgical group had lower rates of toe-walking, but no direct comparisons could be made to the nonsurgical groups because the patients in the surgical group were older and had longer follow-up than the other groups. In a retrospective comparison of observation (which included physical therapy and special shoes), casting, and surgery among 80 children with idiopathic toe-walking, surgery resulted in significantly higher parental satisfaction (satisfied was defined as "child rarely walks on tiptoe"), 67% vs 25% and 24% for observation and casting groups respectively (P<.05). Three smaller studies (from 13 to 18 subjects) also showed decreased toe-walking at follow-up, regardless of treatment. There is no convincing evidence that treatment is necessary for this condition. We found no randomized trials of treatment for idiopathic toe-walking and no follow-up studies of sufficient size and duration that evaluate long-term effects of toe walking on the patient later in life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)447-450
Number of pages4
JournalJournal of Family Practice
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Family Practice


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