Walking Abnormalities: Causes, Symptoms & Diagnosis

Walking Abnormalities

What Are Walking Abnormalities?

Walking abnormalities are abnormal, uncontrollable walking patterns. Genetics may cause them or other factors, such as diseases or injuries, may. Walking abnormalities can affect the muscles, bones, or nerves of the legs. 

Abnormalities may be present in the entire leg or in certain parts of the leg, such as the knee or ankle. Problems with the foot may also result in walking abnormalities. 

These conditions can be temporary or long term, depending on their cause. Severe walking abnormalities may require continuous physical therapy and medical care.

Walking abnormalities are often referred to as gait abnormalities. Gait refers to the pattern of walking.

What Causes Walking Abnormalities?

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Cuts, bruises, or bone fractures can temporarily make it difficult to walk. However, diseases that affect the legs, brain, nerves, or spine can cause walking abnormalities. 

The most common causes of walking abnormalities include:

  • arthritis
  • birth defects, such as clubfoot
  • leg injuries
  • bone fractures
  • infections that damage tissues in the legs
  • shin splints (an injury common to athletes that causes pain in the shins)
  • tendinitis (inflammation of the tendons)
  • psychological disorders, including conversion disorder
  • inner ear infections
  • nervous system disorders, such as cerebral palsy or stroke 

Although many of these conditions are short-term, some (such as cerebral palsy) may cause permanent walking abnormalities.

What Are the Symptoms of Walking Abnormalities?

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Walking abnormalities are separated into five groups based on their symptoms:

  • Propulsive gait: This walking abnormality is characterized by a slouched, rigid posture. A person with this condition walks with their head and neck thrust forward.
  • Scissors gait: A person with this abnormality walks with their legs bent slightly inward. As they walk, their knees and thighs may cross or hit each other in a scissor-like movement.
  • Spastic gait: A person with spastic gait drags their feet while walking. They may also appear to walk very stiffly.
  • Steppage gait: A person with this condition walks with their toes pointing downward, causing their toes to scrape the ground while walking.
  • Waddling gait: A person with this gait waddles from side to side when walking. 

A limp is also considered a walking abnormality. A limp may be permanent or temporary.

How Are Walking Abnormalities Diagnosed?

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During a physical examination, your doctor will review your symptoms and medical history and observe the way you walk. They may perform tests to check your nerve or muscle function. This will help determine whether there’s a structural problem causing your condition. 

Your doctor may also order an imaging test, such as an X-ray, to check for fractures or broken bones. This is typically done if you’ve recently had an injury or fall. A more in-depth imaging test, such as an MRI, can check for torn tendons and ligaments.

How Are Walking Abnormalities Treated?

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A walking abnormality may go away when the underlying condition is treated. For instance, walking abnormalities due to trauma will get better as the injury heals. A cast may be used to set the bone if you have a fracture or broken bone. Surgery can also be done to repair certain injuries.

Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics or antiviral medications if an infection caused your walking abnormality. These medications will treat the infection and help improve your symptoms.

Physical therapy can also be used to help treat walking abnormalities. During physical therapy, you’ll learn exercises designed to strengthen your muscles and correct the way you walk. 

Those with a permanent walking abnormality may receive assistive devices, such as crutches, leg braces, a walker, or a cane.

Preventing Walking Abnormalities

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Congenital (genetic) walking abnormalities may not be preventable. However, abnormalities caused by injury can be avoided.

Make sure to wear protective gear whenever you participate in contact sports or extreme activities such as dirt biking or rock climbing. You can minimize the risk of leg and foot injuries by protecting your legs and feet with kneepads, ankle braces, and sturdy footwear.

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