Parkinson’s disease is a condition that affects the brain, causing symptoms such as movement changes, tremors, and muscle stiffness. “Parkinson’s walk” can refer to issues with walking, such as slowness, balance issues, and shuffling.

Parkinson’s disease can also cause other symptoms, including nerve pain, rigidity, and insomnia.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, approximately 500,000 people in the United States have a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. However, the condition may sometimes go undiagnosed, meaning this number might be higher.

Because Parkinson’s disease is a progressive condition, movement changes it causes may become more severe over time. However, treatment including medications and physical therapy may help with these and other symptoms.

This article will explain how Parkinson’s disease affects walking and other symptoms it can cause. It will also describe treatment for the condition and ways to manage walking difficulties.

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The United Kingdom’s National Health Service states that Parkinson’s disease results from a loss of cells in the substantia nigra, a part of the brain responsible for movement.

These cells make some of the body’s dopamine, which is a chemical messenger with many functions, including regulating the control of physical movements. A lack of dopamine can result in many symptoms, including tremors and slowed movements.

Visit our dedicated hub to learn more about Parkinson’s disease.

Gait changes

One of the early signs of Parkinson’s disease is a change in a person’s gait, or how they walk.

With Parkinson’s disease, it can be more difficult to coordinate a typical step, and steps tend to be shorter with the feet closer together. Instead of the heel landing on the floor first, the feet may land straight down. Rather than a smooth motion, a person may experience more of a shuffle when they walk, affecting balance and increasing the risk of falls.

Some people may call this type of walk a “Parkinsonian gait.”

Read more about walking changes with Parkinson’s here.

Postural instability

Brain changes from Parkinson’s disease lead to balance and coordination difficulties. As well as taking small, shuffling steps, people with the condition may lean forward when walking. This can make it harder to stay balanced.

The body is always adjusting to maintain balance. If a person with postural instability loses their balance, they are much more likely to fall. Because of this, Parkinson’s disease can often result in frequent visits to emergency departments relating to falls.


According to the International Parkinson’s and Movement Disorder Society, up to 50% of people with the condition may experience freezing, which causes the feet to feel as if they are stuck on the ground, while the torso may still be able to move forward. Freezing can eventually lead to falls.

As Parkinson’s disease progresses, it leads to several changes in how a person moves. It may become harder for them to coordinate their body’s movements.

Some of the changes a person may experience include:

  • shuffling feet
  • muscle stiffness
  • slower movements
  • the arms no longer swinging while walking
  • freezing and feeling stuck, especially when changing directions or passing through a narrow space
  • a hunched or forward-leaning posture

Issues with walking can occur when the brain has difficulty processing automatic movements, such as the swinging of arms and lifting of feet.

Although doctors are still unsure why some people develop Parkinson’s disease, signs and symptoms point to issues with nerve cells in a group of structures called the basal ganglia. These work with other areas of the brain to coordinate movement.

With the cells not producing enough dopamine, it is harder for the brain to control movement, leading to symptoms including tremors and stiffness.

Learn more about the causes and early signs of Parkinson’s disease.

Many medications for Parkinson’s disease work by increasing the availability of dopamine. This allows for better communication to coordinate the body’s movements.

The main medications to help manage symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include:

  • Levodopa: This medication converts to dopamine in the brain.
  • Dopamine agonists: These mimic the action of dopamine and stimulate the areas of the brain that use it.
  • Enzyme inhibitors: These help prevent dopamine from breaking down too quickly.

A medication called carbidopa is an enzyme inhibitor that drug producers often combine with levodopa. It helps levodopa be more effective and helps prevent some of the side effects of levodopa, such as feeling sick or dizzy.

For some people, deep brain stimulation (DBS) is an option. This may be helpful when medications are not as effective. With DBS, doctors place electrodes in the brain and connect them to an electrical device in the chest. They can then stimulate areas of the brain to improve communication between the brain and body.

Medications can help treat many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. However, they may not always manage to treat changes in movement.

Treatment for Parkinson’s disease may help with stiffness, slowness, and changes in gait. Although it may be difficult for a person to adapt to changes in how their body moves, there are many ways to manage movement and still lead a happy, fulfilling life.

Exercise and physical therapy

Regular exercise may help with balance and stability. According to a 2017 longitudinal analysis, consistent exercise may lead to improved quality of life and mobility in people with Parkinson’s disease. Many people work on this with a physical therapist or occupational therapist.

Physical therapies can include:

  • practices such as yoga and tai chi, which can help increase flexibility, balance, and posture
  • exercises that strengthen muscles, improving balance and coordination
  • having massage therapy to reduce tension in the body

Other types of exercise that may also help include:

Walking tips

Parkinson’s disease can cause many changes to how a person walks. It can become harder to coordinate a typical stepping motion.

Strategies that may help include the following:

  • Focusing on putting the heel of the foot down first when taking a step.
  • Looking ahead, rather than down at the feet.
  • Practicing taking large purposeful steps to reduce shuffling.
  • Avoiding carrying anything while walking, or limiting the amount a person carries.
  • Considering using a walker or cane for extra stability.

Turning tips

Changes to coordination and other effects of Parkinson’s disease can also make complex movements such as making a turn or walking through a doorway more challenging. Turning may sometimes trigger a freeze response and requires balance to prevent a fall.

Parkinson’s disease can lead to reduced control of the movement of the trunk area, which includes the chest, abdomen, back, and pelvis. A safe turn requires careful foot positioning rather than twisting the upper body.

Below are some tips that may help a person make a safe turn:

  • To turn to the left, shift weight to the right foot. Once stable, purposefully move the left foot to start moving in the left direction.
  • To turn to the right, shift weight to the left foot. Once stable, purposefully move the right foot to start moving toward the right.
  • If freezing occurs, stop trying to move for a moment. Take a deep breath, then consciously take a large step to get moving again.

Avoiding falls

About 60% of people with Parkinson’s disease may experience a fall at some point due to changes in balance and stability.

Here are some strategies to reduce the risk of falls in the home:

  • Ensure rugs are flat and secure to avoid them becoming a tripping hazard.
  • Install grab rails around the toilet and in showers and bathtubs.
  • Keep walkways clear of clutter.
  • Use lamps and nightlights as needed to keep all areas well-lit.
  • When changing positions, such as going from lying down to sitting, move slowly to prevent dizziness.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive condition that affects the body’s movements. The cells that create dopamine start to die off, which affects mobility in many ways. It can become harder to coordinate a typical stepping motion.

The condition can affect balance and increases falling risk. Some people may also experience freezing episodes. However, treatments including medications and exercise can help people manage symptoms and mobility challenges.