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What is Difficulty Walking?

Walking is a complex interaction among multiple systems of the body. Proper walking is a result of balance, sensory function, reflexes, motor function, and many other systems working in conjunction.

Difficulty walking is defined as inability to walk properly due to abnormal and uncontrollable walking patterns. This can be attributed to factors such as genetics, neurological disorders, musculoskeletal disorders, injuries or other diseases. Walking abnormalities can adversely affect bones, muscles, and nerves of the legs.

Walking abnormalities are often referred to as gait abnormalities with gait referring to the pattern of walking.

What Causes Difficulty Walking?

Fractures, bruises, cuts, as well as medical conditions that affect the legs, nerves, brain, or spine can also cause walking difficulties. Some of the common causes of walking difficulties include:

  • Leg injuries
  • Bone fractures
  • Arthritis
  • Birth defects, such as club foot
  • Shin splints
  • Tendonitis
  • Ear infections
  • Nervous system disorders, such as stroke or cerebral palsy (may cause permanent walking abnormalities)
  • Spine conditions

Types of Walking Difficulty

If you are experiencing difficulty walking, it can likely be described by different gait patterns, including:

  • Spastic gait: Dragging of feet while walking and apparent stiffness in walk
  • Propulsive gait: A slouched and rigid posture with head and neck thrust forward
  • Scissors gait: Legs bent slightly inward with knees and thighs crossing or hitting each other in a scissor-like movement
  • Steppage gait: Walking with toes pointing downward and causing toes to scrape the ground
  • Waddling gait: A person waddles from side to side while walking

Signs and Symptoms of Difficulty Walking

Signs and symptoms of walking difficulty may include:

  • Pain in the lower limbs
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Stiffness
  • Weakness
  • Imbalance
  • Redness or warmth
  • Low back pain
  • Limping

How are Walking Difficulties Diagnosed?

A physical examination by your doctor along with review of your symptoms and medical history helps in diagnosing walking difficulty. The doctor may also perform tests to check your 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 views and analysis.

How are Walking Difficulties Treated?

Walking difficulty can be resolved when the underlying condition is treated.

Walking difficulty 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.

If walking difficulty is due to an infection, your physician may treat it with antibiotics or antiviral medications.

Physical therapy may also be employed to treat the problem. Your doctor will design specific physical therapy exercises to strengthen your muscles to improve range of motion and correct your walking pattern.

Individuals with a permanent walking difficulty may receive assistive devices, such as braces, crutches, cane, or a walker.

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
  • North American Spine Society
  • Cobb County Medical Society
  • Georgia Orthopaedic Society
  • Piedmont Clinic