Unsteady Gait: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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Most people will experience an unsteady gait (a person's pattern of walking) at some point in their lifetime, including when tripping over an obstacle, limping after an injury, or having difficulty with balance while intoxicated. However, these symptoms are temporary. An unsteady gait that is persistent can be a sign of an underlying health condition. It can also be a side effect of some medications.

This article discusses unsteady gait, what the symptoms are, potential causes, and how it is treated.

Senior woman using a walker.

thianchai sitthikongsak / Getty Images

Symptoms of Unsteady Gait

The main symptom of an unsteady gait is being unbalanced while walking.

Depending on the underlying cause, other issues that may occur with an unsteady gait include:

  • Loss of balance
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Blurry vision
  • Fainting
  • Light-headedness
  • Falls
  • Vertigo (feeling like the room is spinning)

Causes of Unsteady Gait

An unsteady gait can occur with a develop from health conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system (muscles and joints), vestibular system (inner ear and brain), or the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves) that controls body movements. An unsteady gait can also occur as a side effect of certain medications.

Musculoskeletal Conditions

Conditions that affect joints and muscles in the legs can cause an unsteady gait. Examples include:

These conditions can lead to pain, bruising, or swelling.

Musculoskeletal conditions are diagnosed by a physical examination. X-rays can also be taken to diagnose arthritis and bone fractures. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can aid in diagnosing soft tissue injuries to muscles or ligaments.

Musculoskeletal conditions are often treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help decrease symptoms during the healing process. Physical therapy is commonly prescribed to address the unsteady gait that occurs with these conditions.

In some cases, surgery is required. Severe osteoarthritis in the hip or knee is frequently treated with total joint replacement. Significant leg length discrepancies might require leg-lengthening surgery.

Vestibular Conditions

The vestibular system is made up of structures in the inner ear and areas of the brain that interpret information from these structures.

Common vestibular conditions include:

Vestibular Disorder Symptoms

In addition to unsteady gait, vestibular disorders can cause many other symptoms, such as:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Vertigo (feeling like the room is spinning)
  • Confusion
  • Loss of balance or falling
  • Blurry vision


Vestibular disorders are diagnosed through a variety of tests that assess the function of the inner ear. Examples include:

  • Rotation tests (measures the brain's ability to mentally rotate objects)
  • Vestibular-evoked myogenic potential (VEMP) (measures muscle reaction to repetitive pulses)
  • Video head impulse testing (VHIT) (tests vestibular function)
  • Computerized dynamic posturography (CDP) (used to diagnose balance issues)
  • Electronystagmography (ENG) (examines nerve function in the brain by evaluating eye movement)
  • Videonystagmography (VNG) (measures involuntary eye movement)

Vestibular conditions are typically treated with medications and/or vestibular rehabilitation exercises.

Neurological Conditions

A variety of neurological conditions cause unsteady gait. These conditions affect the brain, spinal cord, or peripheral nerves that travel through the legs.

Examples include:

Diagnosis of these conditions begins with a neurological exam by a healthcare provider. This includes assessment of movement, sensation, hearing, sight, speech, coordination, and balance. Lab tests are often performed to analyze blood, urine, or saliva to look for infections, antibodies, or toxins.

Other diagnostic tools used to identify neurological conditions include:

Treatment for neurological disorders is condition-specific but often includes medication. In some cases, surgery may be required.

Physical Therapy for Unsteady Gait

Physical therapy (PT) is also an important part of treatment for conditions that cause difficulty walking. PT exercises for unsteady gait include:

  • Balance activities
  • Strengthening exercises
  • Orthotic devices (shoe inserts that correct conditions of the foot or ankle) or braces for joint support
  • Gait training with assistive devices (such as walkers or canes)

Medications and Unsteady Gait

Unsteady gait and balance issues can be a side effect of a variety of medications. Examples include:

  • Antidepressants
  • Opioids
  • NSAIDs
  • Anti-arrhythmics
  • Vasodilators
  • Diabetes medications
  • Anti-anxiety drugs
  • Sleep aids
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Anticholinergics
  • Antispasmodics
  • Antihistamines

If you suspect that your medication might be causing an unsteady gait, ask your healthcare provider about possible alternatives.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have an unsteady gait without a temporary, known cause. It can be a symptom of an underlying health condition. Early treatment of conditions that affect gait can also help prevent serious injuries that can occur if you fall.

Summary

An unsteady gait can be a temporary side effect of an injury or intoxication, or it can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition. An unsteady gait can be a result of issues with the musculoskeletal, vestibular, or nervous systems. It can also be a side effect of medication. Treatment of unsteady gait includes medication, physical therapy, and sometimes surgery.

A Word From Verywell

An unsteady gait can be a problem with a simple fix or be a sign of a more serious health condition. Seeing your healthcare provider is the first step in determining the cause of your symptoms. In the meantime, reduce your risk of falls by making some small changes to your environment: Remove throw rugs, add light to dark areas such as hallways, and wear shoes with nonslip soles when you're inside.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes unsteady gait?

    An unsteady gait can occur with health conditions that affect the musculoskeletal, vestibular, or nervous systems. It can also be a side effect of medications.

  • How is unsteady gait treated?

    Treatment for unsteady gait depends on the underlying cause. Treatment often includes medications and physical therapy.

  • What are the symptoms of unsteady gait?

    Unsteady gait causes staggering or stumbling when walking. It can lead to falls, dizziness, and confusion.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Aging. Balance problems and disorders.

  2. Vestibular Disorders Association. About vestibular disorders.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Vestibular balance disorder.

  4. Vestibular Disorders Association. Tests for diagnosing vestibular disorders.

  5. Vestibular Disorders Association. Vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT).

  6. National Library of Medicine. Degenerative nerve diseases.

  7. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Neurological diagnostic tests and procedures fact sheet.

  8. Harvard Health Publishing. How medications can affect your balance.

By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.