What causes unsteady gait? 21 possible conditions

What Is an Unsteady Gait?

Walking is typically a smooth motion created by putting one foot in front of the other. Unless you’re walking on an uneven surface, your walking pattern should feel steady and even. However, your walking pattern is no longer smooth if you have an unsteady gait. It may be shuffling, uneven, or feel otherwise unstable.

An “unsteady gait” has many potential causes that range from temporary to long term. An unsteady gait can increase your risk for falls and injury, so it’s important to seek medical help for more serious causes of this symptom.

Doctors may also describe an unsteady gait as an “ataxic” gait. This means the person is walking in an abnormal, uncoordinated, or unsteady manner.

What Are the Symptoms of Unsteady Gait?

An unsteady gait can encompass several different symptoms. Examples include:

  • dizziness or vertigo when walking
  • shuffling when walking
  • instability, or lacking balance
  • unsteady

People with a chronically unsteady gait often have a wide stance when walking. They may walk slowly and exhibit caution when walking, and may even stumble.

What Causes an Unsteady Gait?

Many disorders and contributing factors cause an unsteady gait. According to the Cleveland Clinic, there are often multiple causes of an unsteady gait. These include:

  • alcohol intoxication
  • cardiac arrhythmia
  • cervical spondylosis
  • congestive heart failure
  • coronary artery disease
  • delirium
  • dementia
  • diabetes mellitus
  • foot disorders
  • gout
  • hearing impairment
  • hepatic encephalopathy
  • human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-associated neuropathy
  • hyperthyroidism
  • hypothyroidism
  • lumbar spinal stenosis
  • multiple sclerosis
  • muscle weakness or atrophy
  • orthostatic hypotension
  • osteoarthritis
  • osteoporosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • sleep disorders
  • stroke
  • substance abuse
  • thromboembolic disease
  • uremia
  • vestibular disorders
  • visual impairment
  • vitamin B12 deficiency

Taking four or more medications at a time is also associated with increased risk for an unsteady gait. Prescription medications such as these are also associated with increased risk for an unsteady gait:

  • diuretics
  • narcotics
  • antidepressants
  • psychotropics
  • digoxin
  • anticonvulsants
  • antiarrhythmics

When Do I Seek Medical Help for an Unsteady Gait?

Seek immediate medical attention if you suddenly experience an unsteady gait coupled with any of the following symptoms:

  • a fall with injuries or a fall on your head
  • cannot speak clearly
  • difficulty breathing
  • dizziness
  • drooping on one side of the face
  • loss of bladder or bowel control
  • occurs after a head injury
  • severe, throbbing headache
  • sudden confusion
  • sudden numbness in one or more body parts

Make an appointment to see your doctor if you have recently experienced a fall or your unsteady gait makes you feel as if you may fall. Taking action is vital to keeping you safe and reducing the risk of future injury.

How Is an Unsteady Gait Diagnosed?

Your doctor will first take a medical history and ask you about what medications you are taking. It’s also important to report if you have a history of falls or near falls, as well as any alcohol consumption history or use of recreational drugs. 

Your doctor will also evaluate your gait to view how you are walking. He or she may ask you to walk toe to heel. Other considerations are stance, step length, and if you need help when walking. 

Your doctor may classify your gait using a scale known as the Functional Ambulation Classification Scale. This scale rates your gait on a zero to five scale, with five being a person who can walk independently and without assistance from others.

A doctor will then consider if you have related symptoms that may require additional tests. These can include:

  • blood pressure checks in a lying, seated, and standing position
  • blood testing for hemoglobin levels, thyroid function, electrolytes, blood glucose, and vitamin B12 tests
  • cognitive function testing
  • depression screening
  • hearing tests
  • vision tests

Testing and diagnostic methods vary because there can be many causes of an unsteady gait.

How Is an Unsteady Gait Treated?

Treatments for an unsteady gait depend upon its causes. A doctor may prescribe medications to reduce an unsteady gait if you have the following conditions:

  • arthritis
  • depression
  • hypothyroidism
  • orthostatic hypertension
  • Parkinson disease
  • rhythm disorders
  • vitamin B12 deficiency

Some conditions may require surgery to correct the unsteady gait cause. These include spinal conditions, such as lumbar spinal stenosis. 

Other treatments can include hearing aids for hearing problems, canes or walkers to aid in walking, and vision correction through glasses or a new glasses prescription. Some people may even benefit from physical therapy services that help them learn how to walk with a foot problem, such as foot numbness.

What Can I Do at Home to Treat an Unsteady Gait?

Because an unsteady gait increases your risk for falls, it’s important to evaluate your home. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Take care to remove all objects from walkways. Examples include shoes, books, clothing, and papers.
  • Make sure your walkways are well lit. You may wish to place nightlights in wall outlets to ensure that your path is visible.
  • Place nonslip mats on your bathtub floor as well as where you step outside the tub. You can also place nonskid, adhesive strips on the tub floor.
  • Always wear nonskid shoes when walking inside your house to reduce your fall risk.
  • Keep a flashlight at your bedside and use it if you need to get up at night. 

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disorder. It first presents with problems of movement. Smooth and coordinated muscle movements of the body are made possible by a substance in the brain calle...

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2

Muscular Dystrophies

Muscular dystrophies are a group of diseases that cause damage and weakness to muscles over time. This damage and weakness is caused by the lack of a protein called dystrophin, which is necessary for normal muscl...

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3

Stroke Overview

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A stroke (a "brain attack") is a medical emergency in which part of the brain is deprived of oxygen. This occurs when an artery that supplies oxygenated blood to the brain becomes damaged and brain cells begin to die.

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4

Mini Stroke (Transient Ischemic Attack)

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

During a transient ischemic attack (TIA, mini stroke) blood stops flowing to the brain for a short period of time. TIA doesn't kill brain cells like a stroke does. TIA causes symptoms that mimic those of a stroke.

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5

Dementia Overview

Dementia may affect memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior. Mental impairment must affect at least two brain functions to be considered dementia.

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6

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and Mad Cow Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is an infectious disease that causes the brain to degenerate. The hallmark of this brain disease is an inability to think clearly and take care of oneself.

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7

Concussion

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury. Usually it occurs after an impact to your head or after a whiplash-type injury. A concussion can cause many severe symptoms that affect brain function.

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8

Osteomalacia

Osteomalacia is a weakening of the bones due to problems with bone formation or the bone building process. It is not the same as osteoporosis, which is a weakening of living bone that has already been formed and i...

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9

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease (AD), the most common cause of dementia, is a progressive brain disorder. Learn about the causes, signs and research being done about AD.

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10

Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a disorder of muscle movement and coordination caused by an injury to a child's brain that occurs before birth or during infancy. It affects the part of the brain that controls body movement. Othe...

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11

Multiple Sclerosis Overview

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. MS can cause varying symptoms that appear with a wide range of severity, from mild discomfort to complete disability.

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12

Encephalitis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain tissue usually caused by viral infection. Mild symptoms include fever, headache, and vomiting. Seizure, unconsciousness, and high fever are severe signs.

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13

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy

One of the nine types of muscular dystrophy, Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a genetic condition characterized by progressive weakening of voluntary muscles that leads to death. DMD worsens more rapidly than othe...

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14

Friedreich's Ataxia

Friedreich's ataxia is a rare genetic disease that causes difficulties walking, loss of sensation in the arms and legs, and impaired speech. It is also known as spinocerebellar degeneration. The disease causes damage t...

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15

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is a type of brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1. The syndrome is actually two separate conditions that can occur at the same time. Usually you'll experience symptoms o...

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16

Pernicious Anemia

Pernicious anemia (PA) is an autoimmune disorder in which the body fails to make enough healthy red blood cells (RBCs), resulting in vitamin B-12 deficiency. Most people experience a burning or sore tongue.

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17

Paget's Disease of the Bone

A typical human skeleton consists of 206 bones. Bones are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. If this process is altered, bones can break down and re-form abnormally and in ways that compromise the integrity o...

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18

Aftershave Poisoning

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Most aftershaves contain the poisonous ingredients. If swallowed, it can produce harmful effects. Symptoms include muscle cramping, nausea, abdominal pain, headache, and dizziness.

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19

Achondroplasia

Achondroplasia is a bone growth disorder that causes disproportionate dwarfism. Dwarfism is defined as a condition of short stature as an adult. People with achondroplasia are short in stature with a normal sized tors...

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20

Acute Cerebellar Ataxia

The cerebellum is the area of the brain responsible for controlling muscle coordination. If it becomes inflamed or damaged, you may suddenly lose coordination. This is called acute cerebellar ataxia (ACA), o...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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