Gait and balance disorders are common in older adults and a major cause of slips and falls. Typically, changes in gait are related to an underlying medical condition such as arthritis. However, walking abnormalities can also stem from diseases that affect the brain, nerves or spine. It’s important to address the underlying cause of walking abnormalities because slips and falls in the elderly are a leading cause of disability and death. In some cases, the underlying condition may be short term (such as a bone fracture or bruise), and walking abnormalities will improve.

Symptoms of Gait Abnormalities

If Mom slips down the stairs or Dad seems to be walking a little funny, how do you know if this is a short-term issue or something abnormal? First, pay attention to how they are walking and what makes it abnormal. Gait abnormalities are separated into five groups based on their symptoms.

  • Propulsive Gait: Slouched, rigid posture. A person with this will walk with their head and neck pushed forward.
  • Scissors Gait: A crouched posture with the legs bent inward. The knees or legs may hit each other when the person walks.
  • Spastic Gait: Dragging the feet accompanied with stiff walking.
  • Steppage Gait: Toes are pointed downward before the back of the foot hits the ground.
  • Waddling Gait: Waddling from side to side when walking.

Diagnosing Walking Abnormalities

If a balance disorder is suspected, take Mom or Dad to the doctor right away. The doctor will review their symptoms and medical history as well as watch them walk. If nerve or muscle function is of concern, tests may be ordered to determine if a structural problem is present. Some people are surprised to learn that their loved one actually suffered an injury from a slip or fall, so don’t underestimate the severity of minor accidents.

Treating Gait Abnormalities

In many cases, once the underlying condition is treated, a gait abnormality will go away. Unfortunately, not all conditions can be cured, especially if your parent is dealing with a chronic condition such as arthritis. In these cases, physical therapy can be helpful since it strengthens the muscles, improves balance and corrects physical abnormalities. To avoid gait problems in the future, be sure to keep your loved one protected during certain activities such as gardening or walking, and encourage additional exercise to help with muscle tone and balance.