6 Medical Conditions That Can Cause Difficulty Walking

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Nurse helping patient in hospital
  • Most people will have trouble walking at some point in their lifetime. It’s not always due to a health problem, but there are many different mild to serious medical conditions that can cause balance and gait problems. When a person begins to shuffle or experience balance problems, a walking gait analysis may help identify the cause of difficulty walking and suggest approaches for fixing it. Here is a short list of what causes of balance and gait problems and difficulty walking.

  • 1
    Arthritis
    Chiropractor Massage Patients Hip

    In general, arthritis damages knee and hip tissues, which can lead to discomfort while walking.  When walking becomes painful, many people compensate by subtly altering their gait—without even knowing. Altering the gait can throw off normal body mechanics of walking and lead to serious gait issues that require medical intervention, including mobility aids (such as a cane) and medications to treat pain and inflammation as well as reduce the damage to joint tissues.

  • 2
    Ataxia
    Senior Caucasian woman with cane sitting outside feeling fatigue or dizziness

    The term ataxia generally refers to the loss of ability to control muscle movements. Some types of ataxias are inherited, such as Friedrich’s ataxia, while others, like sudden cerebellar ataxia, may occur after trauma that violently whips the head. Ataxia that occurs after trauma may clear up as the brain heals itself, while inherited ataxias generally worsen over the course of a lifetime and can result in the inability to walk. When someone seeks medical attention for a sudden loss of muscle coordination, doctors look for the underlying cause and then treat it if possible.

  • 3
    Disorders of the Cerebellum
    Doctor reviewing imaging

    Besides trauma, other brain disorders can cause difficulty walking. In particular, any deterioration of cells within  the cerebellum can cause balance issues that make it difficult or impossible to walk. The cerebellum controls balance and muscle coordination, so if it becomes inflamed or if a disease causes the cerebellar cells to atrophy, then you might experience walking difficulty. Doctors may order imaging tests of the cerebellum to determine if a person’s gait abnormality is due to a disorder or disease affecting this part of the brain.

  • 4
    Parkinson's Disease
    physical therapist helping senior man walk between parallel bars at rehabilitation center

    Parkinson’s disease (and any other movement disorder) often causes progressive difficulty walking. While many people associate Parkinson’s disease with hand tremors, slow movement is another symptom of the disease. It can look like a slow, stiff gait. Parkinson’s can cause a variety of gait abnormalities, as well as balance problems that make walking difficult. A walking gait analysis can help a doctor determine whether the dysfunction is caused by muscle, skeletal or nerve problems, which in turn helps pinpoint the underlying cause. Walking problems caused by Parkinson’s disease may include medication, physical therapy, and assistive devices.

  • 5
    Multiple Sclerosis
    nursing-home-female-resident-walker

    Neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis (MS) often cause walking problems. In fact, walking difficulty represents one of the more common symptoms of MS. Doctors often will try to rule out neurological disorders as a cause of gait abnormalities during the diagnostic process. For walking difficulty related to multiple sclerosis or another neurological disorder, doctors often recommend medications and physical therapy, along with mobility aids, such as a cane, walker or wheelchair.

  • 6
    Cerebral Palsy
    father helping his daughter with a mild cerebral palsy walk up a step outside

    The most common motor disease in childhood, cerebral palsy often causes muscle spasticity and difficulty walking. Cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect the cerebrum (the largest part of the brain) from damage to the brain before or immediately after birth. While all toddlers exhibit an unusual gait as they learn to walk, a child with CP may show profound difficulty walking or may not attempt walking at all. Pediatricians routinely monitor infants for signs of CP because early intervention may result in better outcomes.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Oct 1
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  1. Walking Problems. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/walkingproblems.html
  2. Walking Abnormalities. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003199.htm
  3. Gait Analysis. Temple University. https://podiatry.temple.edu/research/gait-study-center/gait-analysis
  4. What is Ataxia? National Ataxia Foundation. https://ataxia.org/what-is-ataxia/
  5. Common Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. American Parkinson Disease Association. https://www.apdaparkinson.org/what-is-parkinsons/symptoms/
  6. MS Symptoms. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/MS-Symptoms
  7. What is Cerebral Palsy. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/cp/facts.html