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What is Gait Abnormality?

A gait abnormality is defined as an unusual or abnormal walking pattern. This may be attributed to factors such as genetics, neurological disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, injuries, or other underlying conditions. A proper gait is a result of balance, sensory function, reflexes, motor function, and many other systems working in coordination. Any disruption in this coordination may result in an abnormal walking pattern or gait abnormality. Some common examples of an abnormal gait include:

  • Limping
  • Shuffling your feet
  • Dragging your toes
  • Short steps
  • Trouble with coordination
  • Difficulty supporting body weight

Types of Gait Abnormalities

Gait abnormalities are characterized by one of 5 types based on the appearance or symptoms of a person’s walk. They are:

  • Spastic gait (hemiplegic gait): Spastic gait is defined by dragging of feet while walking and apparent stiffness in walk
  • Propulsive gait (Parkinsonian gait): Propulsive gait is when an individual walks with a slouched and rigid posture with head and neck thrust forward
  • Scissors gait: With this type, an individual’s legs are bent slightly inward with knees and thighs crossing or hitting each other in a scissor-like movement
  • Steppage gait (neuropathic gait): This type is defined by walking with toes pointing downward and causing toes to scrape against the ground
  • Waddling gait: Waddling gait is when a person waddles or moves from side to side while walking, creating a duck-like walk

Signs and Symptoms of Gait Abnormality

Some of the common signs and symptoms of gait abnormalities include:

  • Pain while walking
  • Taking small steps
  • Swaying side to side with each step (waddle)
  • Shuffling or dragging of feet
  • Feeling off balance while walking
  • Stiff joints or muscles in the hips and legs
  • Walking with neck and head bent toward the ground
  • Taking higher than usual steps and dropping the feet with each step

Causes of Gait Abnormality

There are several contributing factors and possible causes of gait abnormalities. These include:

  • An injury (including sprains or bone fractures)
  • Shoes that do not fit properly
  • Joint pain
  • Sores on the feet, ingrown toenails, calluses, corns, and warts
  • Nerve damage
  • Inner ear problems
  • Vision issues
  • Birth defects

Underlying health disorders that can cause an abnormal gait pattern include, but are not limited to:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinsonism or Parkinson’s disease
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Hemiplegia
  • Arthritis
  • Stroke
  • Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)

Diagnosis of Gait Abnormality

To help diagnose gait abnormality, your physician will conduct a physical examination and review your symptoms and medical history. Your physician may also conduct a neuromuscular examination to assess your muscle strength, tone and coordination, and neuromuscular function. Imaging tests such as an X-ray may be ordered to check for fractures if you have recently had a fall or an injury. To check for ruptured soft tissues, such as ligaments or tendons, your doctor may order an MRI for detailed analysis.

Treatment for Gait Abnormality

Gait abnormality can be resolved when the underlying condition is treated.

An abnormal gait pattern due to trauma improves as the injury heals. If the injury is due to a fracture or broken bone, then a cast may be used to set the bone. Surgery may be required to treat severe fractures or injuries that may be contributing to gait abnormality.

If gait abnormality is due to an infection, your physician may treat it with antibiotics or antiviral medications. Other classes of medications such as anti-inflammatories, corticosteroid injections, muscle relaxants, anticonvulsants, and antiparkinsonian drugs are also employed to treat underlying conditions such as arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis.

Physical therapy may also be employed to treat the problem. Your doctor will design specific physical therapy exercises that include stretching and mobility exercises to increase flexibility, strengthen your muscles, improve joint range of motion and function, and correct your walking pattern.

Individuals with a permanent or long-term gait abnormality will likely receive assistive devices, such as braces, crutches, a cane, or a walker.

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  • American Board of Orthopaedic Sports Medicine
  • Howard University College of Medicine
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