Limp, Reel, or Totter

Abnormal Gait

Does your old scruffy sailor limp down the dock, slap down the dock, reel down the dock, or totter back and forth on a peg leg?

When we were taught description, the advice was to be specific. We didn’t drive down the street, we raced west on Elm Street. Today we are going to add some possibilities for ways to walk abnormally. If you (or your daughter or granddaughter) grew up with Barbie dolls, you know there are a million packages of “accessories” that can be purchased to dress your doll in style. I believe my wife bought a sack of nearly one hundred shoes for the granddaughters. I just kept my mouth shut and shook my head.

Well, let’s get out the accessory package for “abnormal gait.” I explored an old medical textbook on physical diagnosis. Here’s what I found:

Parkinsonian Gait – (the shuffle)

  • Body held rigid
  • Trunk and head bent forward
  • Short, mincing steps
  • Arms do not swing
  • Other clues it’s Parkinson’s – face void of expression, hands with pill-rolling tremor

Ataxic Gait

  • Diseases of cerebellum, brain, and cerebellar tracts
  • Resembles alcoholic intoxication
  • Patient staggers or reels
  • Possible causes: stroke, infection, tumor, or trauma

Slapping gait (or Steppage Gait)

  • Pathology in the posterior column of spinal cord
  • Tabes dorsalis – caused by tertiary syphilis
  • Loss of sense of position
  • Broad based, feet wide apart
  • Raises legs high, then slaps feet on ground
  • Eyes fixed on ground
  • Manages well in light, but great difficulty in dark
  • Other diseases: diabetic neuropathy, untreated B12 deficiency, other peripheral neuropathies

Hemiplegia (weakness on one side of body)

  • Example – stroke, trauma
  • Drags affected leg around in a semicircle
  • Holds arm on same side rigid against chest wall
  • Knee held stiffly, ankle extended

Spastic gait

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Jerking, uncoordinated movements

Scissors gait

  • Spastic paraplegia, spastic cerebral palsy
  • Walks with thighs held tightly together

Hysterical Gait

  • Bizarre
  • Delicate balancing movements are present that allow patient to walk in a bizarre fashion

Antalgic limp

  • Caused by pain
  • Irregular hopping gait
  • Hurries to shift weight to nonpainful side
  • Muscle or tendon strains can cause shortening of stride on affected side

Uneven leg length limp

  • One leg shorter
  • Compensates by walking on toe on short side or by dropping pelvis on short side
  • May be wearing one shoe with a thick sole

Ankylosed gait

  • Restricted joint motion
  • Patient who needs hip replacement “drags” the affected leg as he swings it forward

Gluteal limp

  • Example – polio myelitis
  • Caused by paralysis or shortening of the gluteus medius muscle
  • Trunk swings over the weakened side during stance phase to maintain balance


Okay, now it’s your turn. Tell us about the gait of one of your characters, or create a new one. Hysterical gaits could be great fun to invent. Strut him or her down the fashion runway. We’ll all watch and cheer. See that little thumbs up button on the bottom left of your screen? Vote for the descriptions you like, or you can even tell us how much you would pay for such an accessory if it were on sale by a “fashion designer” of gaits. Be kind.




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About Steve Hooley

Steve Hooley is the author of seven short stories published in four anthologies, a Vella serial fiction, and is currently working on the Mad River Magic series – a fantasy adventure series for advanced middle-grade to adults. More details available at:

33 thoughts on “Limp, Reel, or Totter

  1. A good post, and one for which each type of gait you listed (and some of the reasons for it) inspire story ideas and/or scenes in a novel. Any character who’s important enough to a story for the writer to focus on and mention any of these afflictions also has a back story. Cool, and I’ll share it widely.

    • Thanks, Harvey. I hope some of these descriptions inspire story ideas for you. And if you have any characters with unusual ways of walking, we’d love to hear about them. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Good morning, Steve. Thanks for the terrific post which simultaneously made me smile and made me smarter.

    I find this topic especially interesting because several months ago I lamented to a friend that after arising from a seated or prone position I was starting to unconsciously walk/shuffle like Mickey Donovan, Jon Voight’s character in Ray Donovan, without being aware of it. I could correct it easily enough but it was disconcerting. I ultimately stopped doing it.

    Your list is almost exhaustive but doesn’t include my favorite gait, if gait it be, which would be the sashay. That’s probably a topic for another time.

    Thanks for brightening and informing my morning, Steve. Have a great weekend.

    • Good morning, Joe. I’m glad your shuffle stopped. I do that sometimes. I think mine is from stiffness and lack of motion in the lower back. It seems to disappear after I’ve been up and about for awhile. This cold weather brings out the arthritis.

      Thanks for adding to our list with the sashay. Maybe we could add it to the hysterical gait, since it can be turned on and off.

      Thanks for your comments. Have a great weekend.

  3. Good list, Steve. Will save it. And I was going to mention sashay, but Joe beat me to it.
    Ever since my daughter was diagnosed with MS, I’ve become aware of how “common” it is, and their gait is noticeable to me. Fortunately, with treatment, so far my daughter’s in good shape and is still an endurance athlete. I don’t think I’ve ever given any of my characters any of these underlying conditions that would cause these gaits. Something to add to the writing arsenal.

    • Thanks, Terry. I’m glad to hear your daughter is doing so well. Recent advances in treatment of MS have been a game changer.

      Far from having read widely, I don’t think I’ve noticed many descriptions of how characters walk, if they walk abnormally. I wanted to add some potential description possibilities to help the TKZ family set their writing apart.

  4. Great info, Steve. I’m always looking for underlying causes for character’s behavior– physical, mental, or psychological.

    “Mince” is not just for cutting up veggies. A self-conscious character in stilettos minces.

    • Thanks, Debbie. And thanks for pointing out the psychological effect on gait. When you think about it, we probably see many more gait changes caused by psychological factors. Can you imagine a Parkinson’s patient in stilettos?

  5. Steve, this post rocks! Not only have you given us medical descriptions with corresponding conditions, which is super helpful, but you included various gaits. Bookmarking this puppy. Thank you!

    As someone loaded with RA and PsA, I have various gaits depending on the day. When my fascia inflames I teeter on the outside bones of my feet till I catch myself doing it. So, I transferred that pain into a tense scene where a killer is about to slice open a victim’s soles while explaining in great detail what it might feel like once he does. Turned out great!

    • Thanks, Sue. I cringed with just your description of the sole-slicing scene. Since you have experienced the pain, I’m sure your scene was gut-wrenching.

      When I put this list together, it reminded me of one of my patients who had survived a construction accident. He had fallen off scaffolding several stories high, sustained a head injury that should have killed him, and now walks like a person with hemiplegia from a stroke. In spite of his handicap, he is a great corn hole player with his unaffected arm.

      I hope your RA and PsA goes into remission, and you can turn it on only when you need to know what character will feel.

  6. Good description of possible gaits. And even if not writing a character with a particular malady, it helps because we can get bogged down in trying to figure out how to describe things such as movement in a way that makes sense and isn’t tiresome.

    • Thanks, BK. Good point about the difficulty of describing movement, especially if it is abnormal, and especially if the reader has not observed such an abnormality in their own experience. At least, hopefully, the list will provide some possibilities for characters that are real. And in the current environment, publishers probably are looking for handicapped characters. After reviewing current popular middle grade fiction, I’ve concluded that main characters must have a handicap.

  7. A fine collection, Steve. Food for thought. I wonder if I could write a song lyric with this information?

    Off we’re gonna Parkinsonian Gait, Parkinsonian Gait off to Buffalo.

    Hmm. I’ll have to work on that one.

    • Great, Marilynn. I can see the image. Wonderful description.

      “A good verb is great, a good verb with an image is better.” And does image imply something that the reader has seen before? Thanks for lurching and wobbling Ralph across the room.

  8. Thanks, Jim. You had me on the lyrics. I had to look that one up. I’m not sure I’ve seen 42nd Street. I need to watch it.

    As to your song (and dance), you’ll have plenty of material with Parkinson’s disease, from the hand tremor, the rigidity of the arms, the lack of expression on the face. And especially the dance steps, where the Parkinson’s patient has trouble beginning to move, then trouble stopping.

  9. Hi Steve,

    Very informative post. Substitute verbs for walking that indicate a physical state or an emotion are golden.

    One I haven’t used nearly enough is “prance,” which I find very evocative but haven’t had the chance to use it recently. Especially fun to combine it with another action to indicate the prancer’s attitude.

    For instance: “The children pranced around the parked car, taunting the trapped occupants.” Hopefully that shows them as joyous/happy/gleeful yet menacing or at least creepy.

    At any rate, Happy Saturday! Thanks for a great post.

    • Thanks, Dale.

      “Substitute verbs for walking that indicate a physical state or an emotion are golden.” I like that, getting double or triple use from the verb.

      Thanks for your input, and a Happy Saturday to you!

  10. Now this is a post of learning, Steve. I recognize some of the symptoms but certainly not the categorization. More information for the writing info box, thank you.

    From time to time, I’ve suffered the Jack Daniels Gait. Symptoms are progressive imbalance, poor coordination, slurred speech, bloodshot & watery eyes, foul odor and language, delusions of being the funniest person at the party, and an unaccountable loss of car keys. After-effects usually are a head the size of a bull moose, mouth and throat parched as a camel, fleeting pangs of regret, and a hesitancy to answer the phone. Anyone else ever experienced JDG?

    • Garry, you win the prize for the funniest comment, and certainly the one that made me laugh out loud.

      Your description of JDG is worthy of a medical textbook, though I suspect that publishers do not want anything that could be construed as having lack of empathy. I certainly see that description in a novel with a “flawed” MC describing the night before and the morning after.

      NB fellow writers – Garry has published this description of JDG. It is now copyrighted material and may not be used in any form without permission in writing from the author.

  11. Great information, Steve! With an added walk down memory lane for me…my seven years as an orthopedic assistant to a surgeon. I learned a lot about abnormal gaits back then.

    And I recognized myself in one of your descriptions: Deb has restricted right hip motion, and drags her right leg and foot forward in a slight swinging motion before planting her foot in front of her. Further complicated by the disparity between leg lengths-left leg shorter than right leg.

    I think I’m headed for a hip replacement. Dang! Fortunately, I know several good surgeons personally…

    • Thanks, Deb. I thought we had several people with medical backgrounds here in the TKZ family, and I remembered that you were one of them.

      Sorry to hear about your hip problem. When you started on your description, I thought you were going to add scoliosis. Two problems is more than enough. I’ve had back surgery and can remember more than one night when I couldn’t make it up the steps to the bedroom.

      I’m glad you know some good hip surgeons. And at least we can say we’ve suffered. Isn’t suffering supposed to make up better writers?

  12. I believe the Jack Daniels gait described above is related to the all too common tequila shuffle.

    My orthopedic surgeon says that he can just look at somebody walking and tell that they need hip surgery. I see him Monday. In my case x-rays are a mere formality.

    There is a difference between the gaits of when my right hip deteriorated vs my current left hip deterioration. Same diagnosis: osteoarthritis brought on by hip dysplasia, but the pain and gait are different. I can describe the differences between the pains, but not the gait. Probably somebody else would need to see it to describe.

    Deb: if you want to travel to Seattle I know a top orthopedic surgeon.

    • Thanks, catfriend! But I’ve got an arsenal of surgeons right here in Yakima…most I’ve worked with and know personally.

      The one I’m seeing is young and with it and does an anterior approach, less invasive, easier recovery. I’ve already had one injection-last fall-which gave me several months of relief, so I’m probably going to ask for a second because I want to put surgery off as long as possible.

      Okay, now y’all know waaayyy too much about my health concerns… 🙂

    • Thanks, Catfriend, for stopping by.

      Right you are. The tequila shuffle is related to the Jack Daniels gait. We need to add another category for abnormal gait caused by excessive pleasure neurotoxins.

      I believe your orthopedic surgeon. I’m not an orthopod, but I can usually tell whether the patient is suffering from back or hip problems by the way he/she stands and walks.

      If you end up needing surgery, I hope it goes well.

  13. Fun post. Here’s a character gait:

    -Disease of the mind, or the soul if real
    -Walks barefoot
    -Flicks toes rearward as he walks due to powerful calf muscles
    -Makes a scraping sound as each foot moves forward due to elongated nail-claws
    -Character often drops to all-fours, so he walks with his shoulders protracted and hunched in anticipation.

    • Wonderful, Priscilla. Great description. I can see your character, walking and ready to attack. It’s been too long since my psychiatry rotation. I need to go back and do some reading.

      Thanks for reminding us of this area of movement.

      Five stars for your post!

  14. Fun post, Steve. I’m a little late to the party. I don’t have a gait for any of my characters, but earlier this year, a normally-dormant L3-L4 herniation decided to make itself known (and has since tamed itself ). Climbing stairs upright hurt like hell, so for a few weeks, I would climb them on all fours. Not one’s most masculine gait.

    • Thanks, John. I’m honored that you stopped by. The party’s never over.

      I understand the herniated disc thing. I’ve had disc surgery in the past and recurrent minor herniations since. I’ve spent a few nights on the floor in the family room because I couldn’t get up the steps to the bedroom.

      One good note, since I know you’ll be working on your new wooded acreage. I have a 28 acre woods that we live in. My back often feels the best during wood cutting season. I don’t know if it’s from all the stretching, or from skipping the exercise on a ski machine.

      Best wishes with finishing your new house.

  15. Always late on Saturday, but always happy to be here.

    When I was in grad school, I noticed “nerd gait” in some of my professors and fellow students. (Computer science is filled with this gait.) The foot strikes the ground heel first, like a normal person, rolls through the length of the foot, then goes up on the toes. Watching someone with this gait is like watching someone on a pogo stick, only without the stick.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Kay. Your mention of nerd gait reminded me of undergrad and a difference in gait I noticed in the girls. I grew up and still live in “fly over country.” I never thought there was anything unusual with the way the girls walked. But when I got to college, I noticed that the girls from the city walked more prim and proper, while the girls back home walked like they were hiking over rough farm ground.

      And then there were our professors. In an old science building with twelve foot ceilings and three floors, the profs seemed to compete for who could descend the steps the fastest. Our biochem professor was the fastest. He seemed to “fall” down the steps. His feet touching the steps just enough to keep him upright.

      Oh, the college days. Thanks for jogging my memory.

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