What are the Most Common Causes of a Unsteady Gait?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2019
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There are a number of causes of unsteady gait, also known as abnormal gait. Causes of unsteady gait can include trauma to the spine or central nervous system, long-term alcohol abuse, and manganese or carbon monoxide poisoning. Certain diseases, including Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and Guillain-Barre syndrome can cause unsteady or abnormal gait. There are generally considered to be at least six different types of gait problems, each with its own distinct characteristics. The characteristics of an abnormal gait may change, depending on the causes of gait disturbance from one individual to the next.

Problems with gait are common, especially among the elderly and those with various health conditions. The elderly may be at the highest risk for developing gait problems, since balance, stability, and flexibility often naturally decrease with age. Many of the gait disturbances seen in the elderly may result from unconscious attempts to modify the gait in order to gain greater balance and stability when walking. Other persons at risk for gait disturbances include those with Parkinson's disease, cerebral palsy, Guillain-Barre syndrome, muscular dystrophy, and congenital hip dysplasia. Persons suffering diseases or traumas affected the muscles, joints, or central nervous system may also be at an increased risk for gait disturbances.


Not all causes of unsteady gait are serious. Muscle soreness, shin splints, calluses, corns, and ingrown toenails can all contribute to unsteady gait. Even uncomfortably snug shoes can lead to gait abnormalities.

The various types of unsteady gait can be quite distinctive in their characteristics and causes, so much so that they have been classified. The steppage gait, for instance, is usually marked by a dangling foot that allows the toes to drag the ground. The scissors gait, often found in cerebral palsy patients, gives the walker a somewhat crouched appearance, and allows the upper legs to smack together or cross over one another in a scissors-like fashion.

The waddling gait is often described as duck-like in appearance, while the spastic gait may cause the walker to move stiffly, and drag the feet. The propulsive gait, often found in those affected by carbon monoxide poisoning, manganese poisoning, Parkinson's disease, or some prescription drug side effects, usually leaves the walker stooped and inflexible, with the head chronically bent. A sixth type of gait, the ataxic gait, usually results from brain damage, possibly from stroke, long-term alcoholism, diabetic neuropathy, or use of certain prescription drugs, such as those prescribed to treat seizures.

Treatment for unsteady gait often depends largely on its cause. Injuries to the muscles or joints, or conditions such as arthritis that affect muscles or joints, can lead to unsteady gait, but gait problems generally improve when the underlying condition is treated or resolved. Physical therapy can help improve gait abnormalities for those suffering chronic conditions that can't be fully resolved.


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Post 1

My uncle battled alcoholism for many years, and he had an unsteady gait caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency. The condition is called Wernicke’s disease.

Luckily he was diagnosed early and able to recover pretty quickly. He was given vitamins through an IV and joined a program to help with his alcoholism. The doctor said my uncle could have developed lesions on his brain, and at that point permanent brain damage occurs. So, he was lucky he got an early diagnosis.

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