What is difficulty walking?
Difficulty walking is the common way people describe gait abnormalities. An abnormal gait is any unusual or uncontrollable change in normal walking pattern. There are several types of gait abnormalities including:
Antalgic gait is what most people commonly call a limp. The pattern quickly shifts weight off of one leg and on to the other with short steps.
Ataxic or wide-based gait is a broad stance with erratic foot placement resulting in an unsteady gait.
Choreiform or hyperkinetic gait is an irregular, jerky, involuntary walking pattern.
Diplegic or scissors gait results in the hips and knees flexing slightly and the upper legs hitting or crossing each other like scissors when walking.
Hemiplegic gait drags one foot in a semi-circle to complete a stride.
Myopathic or waddling gait resembles a duck walk. The pattern shifts the hips to one side or back and forth.
Neuropathic, steppage or equine gait resembles a horse’s front legs walking. The pattern lifts one leg or both legs by bending the knee up to avoid dragging toes on the ground. The toes point or dangle downward.
Parkinsonian or propulsive gait is short or little steps with a shuffling gait pattern. It may also be hard to start walking and steps may involuntarily accelerate. The person often has a stooped, stiff posture with the head and neck bent forward.
See your doctor if you start noticing problems with your gait. Sudden difficulty walking or gait changes can be a sign of serious or potentially life-threatening conditions, such as stroke. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for sudden gait changes or any of the following symptoms indicating stroke:
What other symptoms might occur with difficulty walking?
Symptoms that occur along with gait abnormalities can help doctors determine the underlying cause.
Musculoskeletal-related symptoms that may occur along with difficulty walking
Difficulty walking may accompany other symptoms affecting the muscles, joints or bones. This includes:
Back pain or pain or swelling of the joints or limbs
Decreased range of motion in a joint
Deformities of the limbs
Involuntary muscle movements
Muscle weakness, spasticity or rigidity
Spinal curvatures, including kyphosis (a humpback curve) and scoliosis (an S-shaped curve)
Neurologic symptoms that may occur along with difficulty walking
Symptoms affecting the nervous system and nerves can occur along with difficulty walking. This includes:
Confusion and cognitive impairment
Dizziness, lightheadedness, or loss of consciousness
Other symptoms that may occur along with difficulty walking
Other symptoms that may accompany difficulty walking include:
Abnormal eye movements
Hearing problems, vision changes, or hallucinations
Symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening or serious condition
In some cases, difficulty walking may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have sudden difficulty walking or any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
Confusion or trouble understanding speech
Difficulty speaking, slurred speech, or inability to speak
Face, eyelid or mouth drooping, especially on one side of the face
Numbness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
Severe headache, vision changes, or trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
Weakness in one arm
What causes difficulty walking?
Gait abnormalities can result from injuries or diseases affecting the feet, ankles, knees, legs, hips, spinal cord, brain, or inner ear.
Musculoskeletal causes of difficulty walking
Difficulty walking may arise from problems with the feet, ankles, knees, legs, hips, or back including:
Back problems, such as herniated disc
Broken bones and soft tissues injuries, including sprains, strains and tendonitis
Congenital deformities or conditions that are present at birth
Neurologic and movement disorder causes of difficulty walking
Movement disorders and neurologic disorders affecting the brain or spinal cord can cause difficulty walking including:
ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig’s disease
Brain or spinal cord infection, tumor or trauma
Inner ear and sensory causes of difficulty walking
Difficulty walking may arise from problems with inner ear and senses including:
Ear wax impaction
Labyrinthitis, or an acute inner ear infection
Other causes of difficulty walking
Difficulty walking can also be caused by other conditions or problems including:
Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
Medication side effects
Poisoning, such as carbon monoxide poisoning
Sedentary lifestyle with deconditioning
Vitamin deficiencies, such as B12 deficiency
In some cases, treating the underlying cause of the gait abnormality can improve walking and other movements. There are also medications for muscle spasticity that may help the walking pattern or movement.
What are the potential complications of difficulty walking?
Falls are the main concern with gait abnormalities. Falls can result in significant injury, disability, and even death, especially in the elderly. Injuries from falls can take quite some time to heal. Often, they require rehabilitation to return to everyday life.
For people with gait abnormalities, falls can happen during basic activities, such as bathing or housework. Taking steps to prevent falls is vital for anyone who has difficulty walking. This includes:
Assistive devices and mobility aids, including braces, canes and walkers
Home safety measures, including removing rugs, applying no-slip strips to floors, keeping cords out of the way, and installing grab bars in bathrooms
Medications to treat or improve the symptoms of the underlying disease or disorder
Personal safety measures, including wearing properly fitting, supportive and stable shoes
Physical therapy to improve strength, balance and coordination
Talk with your healthcare provider about which strategies are right for you to reduce the risk of falls.