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Balance and Gait Disorders

Balance and gait disorders are similar in many ways, but they also have some important differences.

The Mayo Clinic refers to balance disorders as anything that causes you to feel as if you are unsteady on your feet or in danger of falling, even if you are sitting or standing still.

Balance and gait disorders can be both physically and mentally debilitating, and there are several reasons why they may occur. A number of underlying neurological or musculoskeletal disorders can either cause or aggravate a balance/gait disorder.

What’s the difference between the two?

Balance disorders affect both physical and mental functionality since the brain thinks you are moving when you really are not.

Gait disorders are a bit different. Gait includes your stride, how fast you walk, and the way that your hips, feet, and legs move together to help you take each step. When a problem develops with your gait, due to an injury or some other abnormality, it can lead to discomfort when walking, as well as a significant amount of pain.

Gait and balance disorders are incredibly common, especially among older adults, and should be addressed as quickly as possible so to reduce the risk of further injury as a result of a trip or fall accident.

A full-body affair:

Your gait and balance are intricate in nature. Each relies on the movement of so many different parts of the body, and each is incredibly dependent on a long list of external factors.

There are so many different elements that can impact your gait and your balance, from the type of shoes you are wearing to how many hours of sleep you got last night. Below are just a few areas of our bodies that play a huge role in gait and balance:

  • Ears
  • Eyes
  • Brain
  • Core Muscles
  • Feet, ankles, and legs
  • Sensory Nerves

There are a large number of reasons why balance and gait disorders may develop. Many balance disorders occur as a result of underlying issues in the vestibular system, which is a delicate collection of fluid-filled chambers and sensory nerves located in the inner ear.

The vestibular system is responsible for maintaining your sense of position, also known as “proprioception.”

When a problem develops in any one of the areas listed above, it can lead to difficulty walking, trouble with balance, unsteadiness on your feet, and even dizziness and lightheadedness, which can further complicate your ability to balance

What causes gait and balance disorders?

There are countless reasons as to why one of these concerns may develop, including the development of arthritis, or other causes of joint pain, as well as chronic illnesses and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, and lesser-known diseases such as Guillen Barre and Meniere’s disease.

In addition, conditions like peripheral neuropathy, gout, and even a brain tumor or hemorrhage can cause balance disruptions or difficulty walking, which can lead to a gait disorder.

The most common causes of gait and balance disorders include:

  • Injury
  • Trauma
  • Inflammation
  • Chronic pain

Any condition that impairs nerve or muscle function can cause you to walk in an abnormal manner. Therefore, gait disorders can also develop from the symptoms of neurological or neuromuscular issues, much like balance disorders. However, gait problems can also appear as the result of underlying musculoskeletal problems.

Common conditions leading to gait disorders include overuse injuries, plantar fasciitis, abnormal foot arches, or uneven muscle support that can make you favor one side of your body more than the other.

While many of these conditions are chronic illnesses that are frequently outside of your control, there are also a handful of environmental and preventative health issues that can have a negative impact on your balance and gait. This includes troubles like obesity, as well as chronic alcohol abuse, vitamin deficiency, and even lingering pain from an injury to your knees, feet, or ankles.

If you previously sustained an injury that never healed properly, it could also lead to a gait disorder. This occurs when the internal scar tissue doesn’t heal correctly, causing limitations to the range of motion in your hips, knees, or feet.

How does physical therapy help balance and gait disorders?

Your physical therapist will identify what is causing trouble with your gait and balance and then can work with you to help you retrain your body to be able to walk and balance like normal again. There are several tests that a physical therapist will do to diagnose the cause of your gait and balance troubles, including hearing tests, testing for inner ear disorder or infection, as well as vision tests.

In some cases, abnormal eye movement can contribute to difficulty with balance, but in other situations, the problem is based on something more physical.

  • Vestibular rehabilitation. If you are suffering from BPPV, our physical therapist will provide you with specific exercises that will return the calcium debris to the correct parts of your ear. Vestibular rehabilitation is a balance-and-gait-specific type of rehab that works to improve your nerves, muscles, vision, and the vestibular system as a whole, in order to maintain a steady balance.
  • Gait retraining exercises. In a study cited by the Arthritis Foundation, patients suffering from osteoarthritis-related gait disorders were able to successfully alter their gait through treadmill exercises. Sometimes, abnormalities in gait can be effectively corrected simply through “retraining.” If this is the case, our physical therapist will walk you through proper posture, stance, and walking techniques.
  • Strengthening exercises. Your evaluation will help determine any problem areas in your body that may need help. Our physical therapist will provide you with strengthening exercises that will build up your muscles, thus making it much easier for you to move around and reduce your risk of injury.
  • Stretches. Targeted stretches will give you more control and quicker reactions with your movements, in addition to reducing your risk of injury. They are an important part of your treatment plan that will help improve your flexibility and your range of motion. They will also help in keeping your muscles from becoming too tight and stiff.

Gait and balance impairments are common at any age, but they do become more prevalent as people get older. As you enter your senior years, it’s critical to be on the lookout for problems like these.

The earlier you discover and address difficulties with your gait and balance, the simpler they are to handle in general.

As a rule, the earlier you identify and begin treating problems with your gait and balance, the easier the issues become to address. If you are experiencing trouble with your gait or balance, consult your physical therapist as soon as possible.