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.
“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.
may also describe an unsteady gait as an “ataxic” gait. This means the person
is walking in an abnormal, uncoordinated, or unsteady manner.
An unsteady gait can encompass several different
symptoms. Examples include:
- dizziness or vertigo when
- shuffling when walking
- instability, or lacking
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.
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
- diabetes mellitus
- foot disorders
- hearing impairment
- hepatic encephalopathy
- human immunodeficiency virus
- lumbar spinal stenosis
- multiple sclerosis
- muscle weakness or atrophy
- orthostatic hypotension
- Parkinson’s disease
- peripheral arterial disease
- peripheral neuropathy
- sleep disorders
- substance abuse
- thromboembolic disease
- 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:
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
- drooping on one side of the
- loss of bladder or bowel
- 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.
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.
Treatments for an unsteady gait depend upon its causes. A
doctor may prescribe medications to reduce an unsteady gait if you have the
- 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
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.
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.