It is estimated that up to five per cent of children are diagnosed with toe walking without a medical cause (known as idiopathic toe walking; ITW). We do not know why children have this walking style or what its long-term impact might be. Children with ITW often present to health professionals with tight muscles at the back of their lower legs. This tightness is most commonly treated with stretches, plaster casts, or surgery.
We were interested in the effects of treatments for ITW in children. Cochrane authors collected relevant clinical trials to answer this question and assessed the evidence.
Date up to date
This Cochrane Review is current to 29 April 2019.
Four trials met the inclusion criteria. They included a total of 104 people; however, three trials did not provide results that we could include in the review. (One trial studied different kinds of foot orthoses, which are in-shoe devices that redistribute force and change gait), and two investigated the effects of adding botulinum toxin injections to various treatments such as stretching, exercises, splints, and footwear.) This review therefore only included the results of one trial, in which 47 children (aged between 5 and 14.5 years) received treatment with either plaster casts alone or plaster casts and injections of botulinum toxin A (BTX) into calf muscles. The study reported how much the children toe walked (based on their parents' observation), any change in ankle range of movement, and relapse (whether the children were still toe walking 12 months after treatment). The included study took place in Sweden and was not funded by anyone with a commercial interest in the results of the study.
The evidence was too uncertain to determine whether or not there were differences in outcomes (amount of toe walking observed by parents, range of movement at the ankle, or recurrence of toe walking at 12 months) between children who received plaster casts and injections of BTX into calf muscles, compared to those who received plaster casts alone.
There were small numbers of adverse events in both groups, including calf pain and minor skin problems during treatment.
The available evidence is too uncertain to determine whether treatment with BTX injections and plaster casts are any more effective than just plaster casts in children with toe walking not associated with a medical condition. The limited evidence found in this review indicates a need for future research on treatments for this condition.
The certainty of evidence from one study, which compared serial casting with serial casting with BTX for ITW in children, was too low for conclusions to be drawn. A further three studies reported outcomes relating to BTX, footwear, exercises, and different types of orthoses as interventions, however the outcome data were too limited to assess their effects.
Idiopathic toe walking (ITW) is an exclusionary diagnosis given to healthy children who persist in walking on their toes after they should typically have achieved a heel-toe gait. The literature discusses conservative and surgical interventions using a variety of treatment modalities. Young children and children without a limitation in ankle dorsiflexion (the upwards movement of the foot towards the shin of the leg) are commonly treated with conservative interventions. Older children who continue toe walking and present with limitations in ankle dorsiflexion are sometimes treated with surgical procedures. This systematic review is needed to evaluate the evidence for any intervention for the treatment of ITW. The conclusions of this review may support decision making by clinicians caring for children with ITW. It may also assist families when deciding on treatment options for their children with ITW. Many of the treatments employed have financial implications for parents or healthcare services. This review also aims to highlight any deficits in the current research base.
To assess the effects of conservative and surgical interventions in children with ITW, specifically effects on gait normalisation, ankle range of motion, pain, frequency of recurrence, and any adverse effects.
On 29 April 2019, we searched the Cochrane Neuromuscular Specialised Register, CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL Plus, and PEDro. We searched the following registers of clinical trials for ongoing and recently completed trials: the World Health Organization (WHO) International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP, apps.who.int/trialsearch), and ClinicalTrials.gov (clinicaltrials.gov). We searched conference proceedings and other grey literature in the BIOSIS databases and System for Information on Grey Literature in Europe (OpenGrey, opengrey.eu). We searched guidelines via the Turning Research Into Practice database (TRIP, tripdatabase.com) and National Guideline Clearinghouse (guideline.gov). We did not apply language restrictions.
We considered randomised or quasi-randomised trials for inclusion in the review if they involved participants diagnosed with ITW gait in the absence of a medical condition known to cause toe walking, or associated with toe walking. As there is no universally accepted age group for ITW, this review includes ITW at any age, who have been toe walking for more than six months, who can or cannot walk with a heel-toe gait, and who may or may not have limited dorsiflexion of the ankle joint.
We used standard Cochrane methodological procedures. The primary outcome was improvement in toe walking (defined as greater than 50% of time spent heel-toe walking). Secondary outcomes were active and passive range of motion of the ankle joint, pain, recurrence of ITW after treatment, and adverse events. We assessed the certainty of the evidence using the GRADE framework.
Four studies, comprising 104 participants, met the inclusion criteria. One study did not report data within the appropriate follow-up timeframe and data from two studies were insufficient for analysis. The single study from which we extracted data had 47 participants and was a randomised, controlled, parallel-group trial conducted in Sweden. It tested the hypothesis that combined treatment with serial casting and botulinum toxin type A (BTX) was more effective than serial casting alone in reducing ITW gait.
This study found that more participants treated with BTX improved (defined as toe walking less than 50% of the time, as reported by parents) (risk ratio (RR) 1.21, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.57 to 2.55; 1 trial, 46 participants; very low-certainty evidence). However, there was little or no difference between groups in passive ankle joint dorsiflexion range of movement on the right with the knee extended (mean difference (MD) -1.48º, 95% CI -4.13 to 1.16; 1 trial, 47 participants), on the right with the knee flexed (MD -0.04º, 95% CI -1.80 to 1.73; 1 trial, 46 participants), on the left with the knee flexed (MD 1.07, 95% CI -1.22 to 3.37), or on the left with the knee extended (MD 0.05, 95% CI -0.91 to 1.91). Nor was there a clear difference between the groups in recurrence of toe-walking gait (assessed via severity of toe walking (graded 1 (mild), 2 (moderate), or 3 (severe)) on gait analysis, analysed as continuous data: MD 0.34 points, 95% CI -0.09 to 0.78; 46 participants). In principle, MDs greater than zero (i.e.) positive values) would favour BTX and casting and negative values would favour casting alone. We have not reported effects as better or worse because all results were from evidence of very low certainty. We downgraded the certainty of evidence because of study limitations (outcome assessment was not blinded) and imprecision. Outcomes of pain and active range of motion were not reported in the included study.
In terms of adverse events, calf pain was reported twice in the casting-only group and three times in the BTX group. There were three minor skin problems in each group and one reported case of pain directly after BTX injection. The report did not state if calf pain and skin irritation were from the same or different participants. The study authors reported that adverse events did not alter treatment adherence.