What your walking style reveals about your health

Sure, everyone trips now and then or slows down when they’re tired. But certain changes in your gait can be related to other health conditions. Here’s what to watch for.  

Stacey Colino
Man and woman holding hands at beach

Most people don’t give much thought to how they walk. They simply put one foot in front of the other and go on their way. But it turns out that certain walking patterns may provide hints about underlying health conditions.

That’s why a walking assessment is part of the head-to-toe exam you’ll receive during an in-home visit from UnitedHealthcare® Housecalls. These visits, which are part of most Medicare Advantage plans, bring health care practitioners to you. (To see if your plan includes HouseCalls* and to schedule your appointment, click here or call 1-800-934-0280, TTY 711, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. ET or 5 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. PT.)

“Gait and balance disorders are among the most common causes of falls, especially with older adults,” says Sujan Gogu, D.O. He’s an osteopathic physician who specializes in sports medicine and pain medicine at South Texas Health System Clinics in Edinburg, Texas. In addition, some medications can cause dizziness, drowsiness or low blood pressure, any of which can lead to walking abnormalities, Dr. Gogu adds. Common culprits include:  

  • Anti-anxiety medications 
  • Antiarrhythmics  
  • Antidepressants 
  • Antipsychotics 
  • Benzodiazepines  
  • Diuretics 
  • Dopamine agonists (often used for Parkinson’s disease) 
  • Muscle relaxants 
  • Narcotics 
  • Sedatives 

That’s another reason it’s important to keep your health care providers up to date about all the medications you’re taking. 

Walking symptoms that could mean something more 

Here are five common walking patterns that HouseCalls practitioners look for during a visit. If they notice any concerning signs, they’ll help you follow up with your primary care provider (PCP).

Shuffling steps: Walking slowly with a short step length and a shuffling gait is a common symptom of Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a movement and sensory disorder. “The person also may lean forward and have a tremor,” says Dr. Gogu. Turning or shifting directions can be especially challenging and can lead to a brief freezing of movement.  

An imbalanced stride (sometimes with limp): If someone has a difference in stride length between their left and right legs, or is limping, it could be due to osteoarthritis. This form of arthritis occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of bones in the joints breaks down. It can lead to decreased range of motion and muscle weakness around a joint. It can also contribute to joint instability or buckling. 

While many older adults have arthritis pain, it’s not just something you have to live with. When you have an in-home visit with HouseCalls, your practitioner will complete a pain assessment. You can be honest about how you’re feeling so your care team can work with you to find relief.

Staggered walking with a wide stance: You may not have heard the term “cerebellar disorders,” but they can develop when there are problems with the brain areas that control coordination and balance. As far as walking goes, these disorders can lead to: 

  • A widened base 
  • Erratic foot placement 
  • Unsteadiness 
  • Veering from side to side  

“These changes may be due to a vascular disorder or a TIA (a transient ischemic attack, often called a ministroke), drug or alcohol intoxication, or even a thiamine or vitamin B deficiency,” says Dr. Gogu. 

Short steps and a staggering walk with a wide stance: “When people experience sensory loss in their feet, their stride length isn’t confident. And they may take short steps and walk slowly because they’re afraid of falling,” Dr. Gogu says. 

This loss of sensation is called neuropathy. It refers to damage to one or more nerves that results in numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and other changes in sensation. While diabetes is a leading cause, nerves can also be damaged by trauma, autoimmune and vascular disorders, and by exposure to certain toxins and drugs. 

Leaning forward while walking: “People with lumbar spinal stenosis often lean forward as they walk, almost as if they were pushing a grocery cart,” Dr. Gogu says. The condition involves a narrowing of the spinal canal in the lower back. This can lead to pressure on the spinal cord or nerves that extend to the muscles. By contrast, with cervical stenosis, which involves the neck, people can have problems with balance or rigidity as they walk, Dr. Gogu says. 

Along with looking for these symptoms in your walk, HouseCalls practitioners also complete a full musculoskeletal review, checking for signs of stiffness, pain and cramping in your back and neck.

Get a fall risk assessment from the comfort of your living room — for free

During a UnitedHealthcare® HouseCalls visit, you’ll receive a head-to-toe examination that includes evaluating your walking style and your risk for falling. HouseCalls is part of most Medicare Advantage plans. (To see if you’re eligible and to schedule your appointment, call 1-800-934-0280, TTY 711 or click here.)

Getting a walking assessment 

It’s important to get any of these symptoms checked out by your PCP or HouseCalls practitioner during an in-home visit. “Whether it’s an acute gait change or a chronic one, bring it to your doctor’s attention,” Dr. Gogu advises. To help correct or compensate for abnormalities or deal with pain while walking, it can help to work with a physical therapist, Dr. Gogu says. 

It's important to take steps to restore your ability to walk as best you can. After all, being able to walk safely and comfortably is important for good health. In fact, adults age 40 and older who take a greater number of steps in a day live longer, according to a study in a 2020 issue of JAMA.  

“Our bodies were made to move. Getting enough physical activity, such as walking, benefits your physical, mental and social health, and prevents or improves many chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and depression,” says Ben Fung, D.P.T., spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. “If you’ve been injured recently or have not walked much due to a specific symptom or condition, start slowly. A walking stick or hiking poles may relieve pressure — in your joints, for example — and help with balance.” Alternatively, using a cane can help you gain confidence. 

Once your care team understands what’s behind the changes in your walking style, they can create a treatment and rehabilitation plan that works best for you. 

*HouseCalls may not be available with all plans or in all areas.