Read below about difficulty walking, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your difficulty walking from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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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.

Walking difficulties are often referred to as gait abnormalities and can be defined and recognized by certain characteristics:

  • Propulsive gait: slouched, rigid posture in which the person walks with their head and neck pushed forward.
  • Scissors gait: the knees and things cross or hit each other in a scissor-like fashion because the person walks with their legs bent inwards.
  • Spastic gait: stiff walking 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

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

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.

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.

Difficulty Walking Causes Overview

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:

  • 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 – multiple 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:

  • 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:

  • 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.

Injury

  • 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.

8 Potential Difficulty Walking Causes

  1. 1.Broken Ankle

    An ankle fracture is a break in 1 or more ankle bones.

    Depending on the type of fracture, recovery may take up to a year.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    difficulty walking, constant ankle pain, swollen ankle, pain in one ankle, ankle pain from an injury
    Symptoms that always occur with broken ankle:
    pain in one ankle, swollen ankle, ankle pain from an injury, constant ankle pain
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  2. 2.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.

    Indefinite

    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
  3. 3.Pinched Nerve in the Neck

    With age, disks separating the cervical vertebrae (which are the bones of your spine in your neck) lose height as well as lose water content, becoming stiffer. The vertebrae move closer together, and nerves that exit between these bones may be pinched, causing pain to travel down the nerve as it passes through the arm. The pain is usually sharp, and some people report a "pins and needles" sensation or even complete numbness.

    Majority of patients get better with time (weeks to months).

    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
  4. 4.Concussion Not Needing Imaging

    A traumatic brain injury (TBI), or concussion, happens when a bump, blow, jolt, or other head injury causes damage to the brain. Every year, millions of people in the U.S. suffer brain injuries. More than half are bad enough that people must go to the hospital, and the worst injuries can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

    Most patients with mild brain injury recover within hours to days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping
    Symptoms that always occur with concussion not needing imaging:
    head or face injury
    Symptoms that never occur with concussion not needing imaging:
    recent fall from 6 feet or higher, severe vomiting, posttraumatic amnesia over 30 minutes, slurred speech, fainting, moderate vomiting
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

    Difficulty Walking Checker

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  5. 5.Stroke or Tia (Transient Ischemic Attack)

    A stroke is a medical emergency. Strokes happen when blood flow to the brain is stopped.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, new headache, leg numbness, arm numbness, stiff neck
    Symptoms that never occur with stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack):
    bilateral weakness
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  6. 6.Stroke or Tia (Transient Ischemic Attack)

    A stroke is a medical emergency. Strokes happen when blood flow to the brain is stopped.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, dizziness, stiff neck, being severely ill, vision changes
    Symptoms that never occur with stroke or tia (transient ischemic attack):
    bilateral weakness
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  7. 7.Broken Foot (Navicular Bone Fracture)

    The navicular is one of the bones of the foot.

    6 weeks of no weight bearing, and 6 more weeks until complete recovery.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    difficulty walking, constant foot pain, pain in one foot, recent ankle injury, foot pain from overuse
    Symptoms that always occur with broken foot (navicular bone fracture):
    pain in one foot, constant foot pain, recent ankle injury
    Urgency:
    In-person visit
  8. 8.Jones Fracture (Broken Foot)

    A Jones Fracture is a fracture of a bone on the outside of the foot (called the fifth metatarsal). A Jones fracture can be either a stress fracture (a tiny hairline break that develops with time), or a sudden break due to trauma. This can result in pain, swelling, and tenderness on the outside of the foot.

    6-8 weeks healing time with cast or splint.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    difficulty walking, constant foot pain, pain in one foot, foot bruise, pain in the front half of the foot
    Symptoms that always occur with jones fracture (broken foot):
    foot pain from an injury, pain when touching the foot, constant foot pain, pain in the front half of the foot, pain in the outside of the foot
    Urgency:
    In-person visit

Difficulty Walking Treatments and Relief

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

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

  • Q.How would you describe your walk?
  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Did you just suffer from a high impact injury (e.g., a fall, collision, accident or sports trauma)?
  • Q.Do your symptoms get worse when you exercise?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our difficulty walking symptom checker to find out more.

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Difficulty Walking Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced difficulty walking have also experienced:

    • 7% Lower Back Pain
    • 4% Hip Pain
    • 2% Fatigue
  • People who have experienced difficulty walking had symptoms persist for:

    • 38% Over a Month
    • 24% Less Than a Week
    • 21% Less Than a Day
  • People who have experienced difficulty walking were most often matched with:

    • 5% Spinal Stenosis
    • 2% Pinched Nerve in the Neck
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.

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