Difficulty Walking Symptoms, Causes & Common Questions

Understand difficulty walking symptoms, including 10 causes & common questions.

Difficulty walking symptoms

Walking is a complex interplay between multiple systems of the body; the nervous system, musculoskeletal system and cardiovascular system are all necessary for the control of walking. Balance, reflexes, sensory function, motor function and many other systems need to be intact in order for walking to proceed normally. As a result, the act and process of walking is very susceptible to impairment that can easily and quickly disturb everyday life.

Difficulty walking or gait abnormality characteristics

If you're experiencing difficulty walking, it can likely be described by:

  • Propulsive gait: Slouched, rigid posture in which the person walks with their head and neck pushed forward.
  • Scissors gait: The knees and thighs cross or hit each other in a scissor-like fashion because the person walks with their legs bent inwards.
  • Spastic gait: Stiff movement in which the person drags their feet while walking.
  • Steppage gait: Toes scrape the ground during walking because the toes point downward.
  • Waddling gait: Person waddles side to side when walking.

Common accompanying symptoms of difficulty walking

In addition to the type of gait abnormality you experience, you may also have additional walking difficulty symptoms, including:

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

Your walking difficulties and associated symptoms may be brief or long-lasting depending on the cause, so it is important to see your physician promptly if you experience any of these signs.

When difficulty walking is an emergency

Seek medical attention immediately if you experience, walking difficulty symptoms such as:

  • Sudden-onset numbness or weakness that impedes your ability to stand up or get up from a chair
  • New bladder or bowel dysfunction (incontinence or retention)
  • Sudden-onset sexual dysfunction: These could be signs of serious, life-threatening conditions such as stroke and spinal injury

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Difficulty walking causes

The causes of walking difficulty are truly broad and varied, making it even more important for you to see your physician in order to get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Neurologic walking difficulty causes

Walking difficulty due to neurological conditions may be related to the following.

  • Central: The central nervous system contains the brain and the spinal cord and acts as the main control center for many bodily functions, including walking. The central nervous system controls important functions such as balance, sensation and control. When there is dysfunction or injury to the central control center such as in stroke many of these systems will be affected.
  • Peripheral: The peripheral nervous system contains the nerves that leave the brain and spinal cord and provide sensation and motor function to different parts of the body. Multiple conditions can affect the peripheral nervous system without affecting the central nervous system and result in gait abnormalities and associated symptoms. For example, there are many infections that can affect the peripheral nerves and result in difficulty walking.

Musculoskeletal walking difficulty causes

Walking difficulty may be the result of musculoskeletal abnormalities or ailments.

  • Mechanical: Problems in alignment and orientation of the parts of the leg such as the hips, the knee, and the ankle can result in gait abnormalities. Furthermore, lack of flexibility and strength in the muscles of the leg can also affect alignment and gait. These mechanical causes can affect how you walk and result in associated walking difficulty symptoms.
  • Destructive: There are conditions that cause direct damage and injury to the muscles of the lower extremities that result in weakness that makes it physically difficult to walk. Muscular dystrophy is a common condition that results in this type of muscular weakening that often presents in young age.

Inflammatory walking difficulty causes

Walking difficulty may occur due to the following inflammatory conditions.

  • Arthritis: Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness of the bones and joints. Arthritis can affect the bones and fluid-filled areas of the knees, ankles and even hips resulting in significant difficulties with walking.
  • Autoimmune: Many inflammatory diseases that result in the body attacking itself can also affect the nerves and muscles and cause injuries that result in gait abnormalities. Conditions such as multiple sclerosis and lupus are examples of such autoimmune diseases that can attack multiple components of the systems necessary for walking.


Walking difficulty may occur due to injuries you may have sustained.

  • Traumatic: Trauma from motor vehicle accidents and other serious injuries can result in fractures and sprains of the bones and ligaments of the lower extremities (respectively). Such injuries can result in mechanical issues as noted above that result in walking abnormalities. Do not forget that falls can also be considered traumatic injuries, especially in the elderly.
  • Overuse: The lower extremities are the most stressed part of the body, and as a result, with time and increasing age they become more susceptible to injury simply due to overuse.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Peripheral arterial disease (pad)

Peripheral artery disease is also called PAD, intermittent claudication, or vascular disease. The large main artery from the heart is the aorta, and its smaller branches are the peripheral arteries.

In PAD these peripheral arteries are blocked with plaque, which is debris that builds up in the lining of these arteries and eventually cuts off the blood flow.

Risk factors for PAD include smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

PAD usually involves arteries that lead to the legs, but can affect any artery. Symptoms include numbness and pain in the legs, especially with exercise when more circulation is needed but the flow is blocked.

It is important to seek treatment for these symptoms. PAD can lead to increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and infection as well as to gangrene, a life-threatening medical emergency.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, blood tests, and sometimes a treadmill test, MRI, and arteriogram.

Treatment involves medication and surgery to open or bypass blocked arteries, and lifestyle changes regarding diet, exercise, and smoking cessation.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: leg numbness, spontaneous foot pain, decreased exercise tolerance, cold feet, thigh pain

Symptoms that never occur with peripheral arterial disease (pad): calf pain from an injury, thigh pain from an injury

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Spinal stenosis

The spine, or backbone, protects the spinal cord and allows people to stand and bend. Spinal stenosis causes narrowing in the spine. The narrowing puts pressure on nerves and the spinal cord and can cause pain.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: lower back pain, back pain that shoots down the leg, back pain that shoots to the butt, difficulty walking, thigh pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Foot weakness

Any foot weakness is a sign of nerve damage, which is very worrisome and requires you to go see a doctor immediately!

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: foot weakness, lower leg weakness, severe pelvis pain, hearing voices or seeing things that aren't there, arm weakness

Urgency: Hospital emergency room

Greater trochanteric pain syndrome

Greater trochanteric pain syndrome, also called trochanteric bursitis or GTPS, is an inflammation of the bursa of the greater trochanter. Bursae are the small "cushions" between tendons, bones, and muscles. The greater trochanter is th..

Pinched nerve in the neck

A pinched nerve in the neck is also called cervical radiculopathy. It means that a nerve in the neck, at a point where it branches off from the spinal cord, is being compressed by the surrounding bones, muscles, or other tissues.

It can be caused by a traumatic injury, such as from sports or an automobile accident, especially if the injury results in a herniated disk. It may also arise from the normal wear and tear of aging.

Symptoms include sharp, burning pain with numbness and tingling from the neck to the shoulder, as well as weakness and numbness into the arm and hand.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and simple neurological tests to check the reflexes. Imaging such as x-ray, CT scan, or MRI may be done, as well as electromyography to measure nerve impulses in the muscles.

A pinched nerve in the neck often improves with simply a few days or weeks of rest. Physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and steroid injections into the spine can all be very helpful.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: pain in one shoulder, spontaneous shoulder pain, pain that radiates down arm, pain in the back of the neck, severe shoulder pain

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Multiple sclerosis (ms)

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease of the central nervous system. The body's immune system attacks nerve fibers and their myelin covering. This causes irreversible scarring called "sclerosis," which interferes with the transmission of signals between the brain and the body.

The cause is unknown. It may be connected to a genetic predisposition. The disease usually appears between ages 20 to 50 and is far more common in women than in men. Other risk factors include family history; viral infections such as Epstein-Barr; having other autoimmune diseases; and smoking.

Symptoms include numbness or weakness in arms, legs, or body; partial or total loss of vision in one or both eyes; tingling or shock-like sensation, especially in the neck; tremor; and loss of coordination.

Diagnosis is made through patient history, neurological examination, blood tests, MRI, and sometimes a spinal tap.

There is no cure for MS, but treatment with corticosteroids and plasma exchange (plasmapheresis) can slow the course of the disease and manage symptoms for better quality of life.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: severe fatigue, constipation, numbness, decreased sex drive, signs of optic neuritis

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Vitamin b12 deficiency

B12 is an essential vitamin for the production of myelin, a compound that speeds up the conduction of nerve impulses, and the production of red blood cells, the cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. It only occurs naturally in diets containing animal byproducts.


Rheumatoid arthritis

Arthritis is a general term for multiple conditions that cause painful inflammation and stiffness throughout the body. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic condition that is autoimmune in nature, meaning that the body's immune system which normally protects the body by att...

Stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack)

Transient ischemic attack, or TIA, is sometimes called a "mini stroke" or a "warning stroke." Any stroke means that blood flow somewhere in the brain has been blocked by a clot.

Risk factors include smoking, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, though anyone can experience a TIA.

Symptoms are "transient," meaning they come and go within minutes because the clot dissolves or moves on its own. Stroke symptoms include weakness, numbness, and paralysis on one side of the face and/or body; slurred speech; abnormal vision; and sudden, severe headache.

A TIA does not cause permanent damage because it is over quickly. However, the patient must get treatment because a TIA is a warning that a more damaging stroke is likely to occur. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.

Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; CT scan or MRI; and electrocardiogram.

Treatment includes anticoagulant medication to prevent further clots. Surgery to clear some of the arteries may also be recommended.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: dizziness, leg numbness, arm numbness, new headache, stiff neck

Symptoms that never occur with stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack): bilateral weakness

Urgency: Emergency medical service

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (als)

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is also called ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease named after the Hall of Fame baseball player whose career ended when he developed ALS. It is a degenerative disease that destroys nerve cells, which eventually ..

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Difficulty walking treatments and relief

Walking difficulty requires medical attention. Treatment will depend on your specific diagnosis and extent of your walking difficulty symptoms.

Medical treatments for difficulty walking

Your physician may suggest one or all of the following interventions:

  • Physical therapy or rehabilitation: Your doctor may prescribe physical therapy/rehabilitation program to help you restore range of motion, strength, and stability of your gait regardless of the cause. A physical therapist can assess problems with your gait and other musculoskeletal issues in order to develop a rehabilitation plan that best applies to your situation.
  • Non-inflammatory medications: Your doctor may prescribe this type of medication to combat arthritic processes that are causing your walking difficulties.

Questions your doctor may ask about difficulty walking

  • How would you describe your walk?
  • Have you been experiencing dizziness?
  • Did you just suffer from a high impact injury (e.g., a fall, collision, accident or sports trauma)?
  • Do your symptoms get worse when you exercise?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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