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.
An unsteady gait can encompass several different symptoms. Examples include:
- dizziness or vertigo when walking
- shuffling when walking
- instability, or lacking balance
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 (HIV)-associated neuropathy
- lumbar spinal stenosis
- multiple sclerosis
- muscle weakness or atrophy
- orthostatic hypotension
- Parkinson’s disease
- peripheral arterial disease (PAD)
- 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 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.
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 following conditions:
- 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.
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.