Types of Gait Disorders

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on October 24, 2023
4 min read

The word gait refers to the movement you use to walk or run. Walking is a complex series of movements that requires your brain, bones, and muscles to work together, with help from your heart and lungs. If there is a problem with any of those systems, it could affect your ability to walk. This is known as a gait disorder. 

Gait disorders can be a symptom of an underlying condition. They tend to be more common among older adults. Having a gait condition can affect your quality of life and put you at a greater risk for falling and injuring yourself. 

Doctors can look at how you are moving and figure out what type of gait disorder you are showing. The way your body moves will give them clues about the underlying cause of your gait problems. This can help them diagnose the issue and plan for treatments. 

Each type of gait disorder has variations, and no two people will have the exact same symptoms. Doctors will look for general characteristics of the way you move when assessing your gait. Some of the more common gait disorders include the following. 

Hemiplegic gait.  ‌Hemiplegic gait is a disorder that affects one side of the body. One of your arms will stay at your side and not move while you walk. You will drag the leg on the same side in a semi-circle to bring it forward. A hemiplegic gait is often the result of a stroke.

Diplegic gait.‌ This gait disorder affects both sides of your body. Your hips and knees may be bent, and your ankles will be turned in. Your steps will have a swinging effect as you move. A diplegic gait can happen as a result of cerebral palsy, stroke, or head trauma.

Neuropathic gait. A neuropathic gait is sometimes known as a foot drop. One foot flops down when your leg lifts up, so you need to pull your knee up high enough to prevent your toes from dragging on the ground when you walk. Neuropathic gait may be a symptom of multiple sclerosis (MS), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or peripheral neuropathy.

Myopathic gait. Sometimes called a waddling gait, a myopathic gait is characterized by a side-to-side movement when walking. It is often due to a weakness in the pelvic area. Myopathic gait can be due to hip problems present since birth. It may be a symptom of muscular dystrophy, another muscle disease, or spinal muscle weakness.

Ataxic gait. Ataxic gait is known for a staggering movement when walking. You may weave from side to side and be unable to walk a straight line. Your balance while standing might be affected as well, and you may sway when you’re not walking. 

Ataxic gait can be a symptom of alcohol intoxication and will get better once you become sober. Some medications can cause an ataxic gait, as well. In more severe cases, ataxic gait may be a sign of brain injury.

Parkinsonian gait. With a parkinsonian gait, you may be stooped forward, with your back and neck bent. You may take small steps rather than longer strides. Parkinsonian gait is often a symptom of Parkinson’s disease.

There are additional reasons that you may have difficulty walking. Chronic pain from conditions like arthritis or past injuries can affect how you walk. Pain or weakness in your feet may be a consideration, as well. You may have balance issues from a problem with your inner ear that affects movement. 

Medical conditions such as heart disease, respiratory difficulties, and obesity can also affect your mobility and how you move.

If you are having difficulty walking, you should speak to a doctor. You may need to see a specialist such as a neurologist, orthopedist, or podiatrist to determine the cause of your gait disorder. Diagnosis could include physical exams, blood tests, and imaging such as x-rays or MRI. 

Once your doctor knows why you are having gait issues, they can make a plan to manage the condition. Some gait problems will get better with medication or surgery. If your gait is affected by a medicine you are taking, you and your doctor can decide if you should change your prescription. 

In other cases, you may benefit from physical therapy and exercise to improve your overall strength. Mobility aids such as a cane or walker might be helpful for you. You may need special footwear or orthotics to improve your gait. 

If you have a gait disorder, your doctor can help you minimize the effects and give you back as much mobility as possible.