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Walk This Way: Canes & Walkers

caneMary Lou loved a good deal. And she found a great one for her husband George at an estate sale: an ebony cane with a sterling silver head. She thought it was just perfect.

But after using the cane a week, George thought his knee pain was even worse. Was it possible that the cane contributed to the knee pain?

“Not every assistive device is right for every person. It has to be tailored to you,” says Aval-Na’Ree S. Green, MD, Geriatric Medicine. Dr. Green offers advice on selecting the proper cane and walker.

Canes

“An improperly used assistive device can actually increase your risk of falls.”

Fit. You can’t buy a cane from a garage sale or make one from a tree in your yard, says Dr. Green. Canes have to be fitted specifically for your height.

“It should hit right at the bend of the wrist or right at the pocket. If it’s not the right height, it will throw off your center of gravity,” Dr. Green says.

Correct hand. A cane should be used in the opposite hand as the injured or weak leg.

“One of the most common mistakes people make is thinking, ‘I have pain in my right knee, so I need to use the cane in my right hand, because that’s my bad side.’ But that’s completely wrong! Opposite arm as leg. If the pain is in your right knee, the cane needs to be in your left hand,” Dr. Green says.

Walkers

Walkers come in a wide variety. Each kind requires differing levels of physical and cognitive ability to use. A physical therapist can help you select the right one, says Dr. Green.

Walkers with no wheels
  • Must be picked up to be moved forward
  • Requires upper-body strength and balance

“A person has a tendency to fall backwards when they pick this walker up, so you have to have a lot of strength and balance to use this one,” says Dr. Green.

Walkers with 2 wheels
  • Don’t have to be picked up to move
  • Very slow moving

“This walker is a great choice for people with cognition, balance or vision problems,” says Dr. Green.

Walkers with 4 wheels
  • Includes a braking mechanism
  • Has a basket and seat
  • Has four 8-inch wheels
  • Moves very quickly
  • Weighs about 15 pounds

“The person has to be cognitively intact to remember everything to use this walker. Otherwise, it can be very dangerous as they go to sit on their seats, forget to engage the brake, the walker slides out, and back they go,” cautions Dr. Green.

And because it’s heavy, Dr. Green warns, “When our patients who are still driving are picking it up and folding it to put it away, they can fall over.”

Selecting the Right Equipment

Says Dr. Green: “It’s not as simple as ‘Go pick up a cane or walker.’ You really need to have the right device, and you need to know how to use it—or else an improperly used assistive device can actually increase your risk of falls.”

A physical therapist, Dr. Green says, can help you select the right equipment. In many settings, you’ll need a referral from your physician to see a physical therapist.

“That’s a conversation I want you to have with your doctors. Number one, it makes the doctors aware, putting you on their radar for increased risk of falls; and number two, it plugs you into benefits through Medicare, which helps offset the costs of physical therapy and treatment to you,” advises Dr. Green.

View more tips for avoiding falls.

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Walk This Way: Canes & Walkers