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How Does A Cane Help You Walk?

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A single point cane / walking aid steadies you as you walk by helping you to increase your base of support. Canes help to distribute your weight more evenly, which helps to give you better balance and more walking safety. In fact, pressure on the leg opposite the hand that holds the cane can be reduced by up to 25 percent when you use a cane or other walking aid.

As a dental hygienist, I see plenty of senior patients who use a walking cane for a variety of reasons. Some have physical problems like arthritis in their backs, hips or knees. Some are waiting for joint replacement surgery. And some have neurological concerns, such as Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis.

In all these cases, canes are the transition between walking unsupported and using more weight-bearing assistive devices like a walker, rollator, or wheel chair.

Using a cane can definitely help improve your balance and make walking easier, but it’s important to be aware of any potential side effects of using a cane.

These include:

  • If you’re not used to using a cane, it may take some time to get used to the new motion and balance required.
  • Using a cane can cause arm and shoulder pain. Proper use of a cane includes making sure that you have chosen the correct height and type of cane for your needs (we’ll cover this later in this article)
  • Cane use can lead to falls if used incorrectly
  • Walking with a cane can be cumbersome and difficult to use in certain situations
  • Depending on the cane, they can be expensive if not covered by insurance

Reasons For Needing A Cane

Generally, a cane or walking stick is one of the first walking aids most people use. They might use one to help recover after surgery or an injury or they may need a cane if they have balance issues from an illness or a medical condition, like vertigo or a severe ear infection.

There is no one size fits all reason for the use of a cane, but there are many good reasons for using one.

You should consider using a cane:

  • If you worry about losing your balance and falling while walking
  • If you have hip or knee pain during or after walking
  • If you feel unstable while walking or have trouble going up and down stairs
  • If you find that you often hold on to furniture or something supportive to steady yourself

My elderly dad initially resisted the idea of using a cane, despite the fact that he was in his late nineties. It was a source of pride to him that he was steady on his feet and he didn’t want to be seen as “old” because he used one.

After he was hospitalized for cellulitis, though, he recognized that he wasn’t as steady as he had been before. He knew he need additional support when walking, but he still argued about getting a mobility aid.

So I convinced him to let me get him a cane “temporarily, until you have your strength back” by appealing to his vanity.

I pointed out that he didn’t want to fall and break a hip because he would look a whole lot older if he was in a wheelchair or using a walker.

How Many Types Of Canes Are There?

There are many different types of canes out there, as well as different kinds of handles and grips. Each type of cane provides a little different type of support.

The three main cane types are:

  • Standard (hook-shaped), single-point canes
  • Multi-tip (quad or tripod) canes
  • Offset canes (the shaft has a slight bend, making it more ergonomic and allowing for better weight distribution for less pain and pressure in the hand and wrist)

Standard canes have a single tip at the end of the cane (bottom). Multi-tip tripod canes have three tips at the end, while quad canes have four rubber tips.

The tip is what touches the ground and gives you better support. For the best safety and stability, the tip should be made of rubber or another non-slip material.

Types Of Cane Handles:

There are three main types of cane handles: the crook handle, the derby handle, and the Fritz handle.

  • The crook handle is the most popular type of cane handle and is curved to fit comfortably in your hand.
  • The derby handle is also curved, but it is straighter than the crook handle.
  • Fritz handles are an uneven t-shape and is designed to provide more stability than other types of handles. They are good for people with arthritis because they provide a better grip for stiff, sore fingers.

In addition, there are other types of cane handles, including:

  • The Fischer handle is a molded grip that fits the contour of your palm. This type is also good for those with arthritis, as well as people with carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Hikers walk with a thumb-stick cane. It has a grooved handle with a Y-shape
  • Ornamental knob handles or metallic caps on canes are decorative, but not as functional.

Should I Use A Cane?

If you find that you aren’t as steady on your feet as you used to be, you’re probably wondering, “Do I need a cane?”

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you should seriously consider getting a cane:

  1. Can you walk on uneven ground without assistance or are you unsteady if you aren’t walking on a level surface?
  2. Can you easily climb or descend a flight of stairs?
  3. Do you avoid doing certain activities that require you to walk because you don’t want to risk a fall?
  4. Do you have a painful joint or does walking cause joint or limb pain?
  5. Can you walk every day without needing assistance (such as holding onto a hand rail)?
  6. Are you concerned that you might fall if you walk unassisted?
  7. Do you frequently look for something to hold onto when you walk (such as a chair, a railing, the back of a sofa, etc.)?
  8. Do you tire easily when walking?
  9. Does walking require undue physical effort?

After viewing this list, if you’re still undecided about whether it’s time to get a cane for yourself or someone else, there is really only one basic question you need to ask yourself.

It’s the same one I asked my dad: “Will you be safer if you use a cane?

If the answer is “yes”, please get a cane. Vanity is not worth a possible fall and broken bones.

If your loved one resists the idea of a walking aid, speak with their healthcare provider or other other health professional to see if they recommend that the person use a cane.

What Is The Best Cane For Balance Problems?

In my opinion, a quad cane is the best walking cane for balance. Here’s why:

Quad canes are the best cane for balance problems because they offer much more stability than a regular cane. In fact, people affected by stroke or partial paralysis would benefit from using a quad cane, as would individuals who are recovering from hip or knee replacement surgery.

Quad canes are similar to regular canes except they have a 4-legged base. Having four points touching the ground gives you more stability and support than straight canes with a single tip.

There are smaller or larger quad bases, depending on how much stability the user requires. Most bases have feet (tips) that spread out in an X-pattern, however there is a brand that makes a K-shaped base.

Generally this type of cane is made of aluminum, but it can still be heavier than a regular cane. If the weight will be a problem, you can look at standard canes with quad cane tips. This is the type I got for my dad.

One nice thing about quad canes is that they will stand up next to the person when the sit down or stop walking, which means they are always available.

Plus, you probably won’t have to worry about bending or squatting to retrieve one that’s slid down to the floor like you might have to do with a regular cane.

How Do You Know What Size Cane To Get?

When choosing a cane, the person’s strength and balance are major factors in the purchase. Their size and weight should also be considered.

For example: a frail senior probably needs either a cane with a small base or a standard cane with a compact, 4-legged tip. People with substantial balance issues will most likely require a quad cane with a wider base.

  • Quad canes are usually adjustable so you can make them the correct height for the user.
  • Standard canes fit the grip of either right or left handed people equally. Quad canes, however, often are made to be strictly right-handed or left-handed, although some have handles that can be changed to fit either hand. Be sure to check this if you are buying a quad cane!
  • Choose a cane with a rubber tip or other non-slip material on the end.
  • Measure the person to ensure they get a cane that is the correct height. This avoids back, shoulder, and arm pain. TO MEASURE: Have them wear the shoes they usually walk in. Be sure they stand tall with their arms hanging loosely by their side. The proper cane length is the measurement from the floor to their wrist joint.

Now that you’ve chosen one, we’ll talk about the proper way to use a cane in the next section.

How Do You Walk With A Cane For Balance?

Walking canes are typically used on the opposite side of the body from your weak or injured leg. For example, if you have an injury on your left leg, you would hold the cane in your right hand.

When using a cane, be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and your elbow bent at a 90-degree angle. Swing the cane forward with each step, keeping it close to your body.

Remember, if you need to use a cane, it must be with you at all times and easily accessible. You must use it while walking or it won’t help you stay safe.

Let’s go over how to walk with a cane:

How to use a STANDARD CANE:

  1. Try to stand upright – don’t lean forward. Also don’t lean to one side.
  2. Hold the cane in your hand on the “good” side (the strong leg) – meaning the opposite hand from your injured side (the “bad” side with the painful or weak leg, hip, or knee).
  3. Put your weight on your good leg, then take a small step forward with the bad leg (move the cane at the same time you move your weak or painful leg). Only move the cane forward about the length of your opposite foot. Don’t make the mistake of reaching too far out or to the side or you’ll increase your fall risk.
  4. Press down on the cane to transfer your body weight to the cane and your bad leg.
  5. Move your stronger leg forward a short stride length.
  6. Repeat.

To walk with a QUAD CANE properly:

  1. Hold the cane with your dominant hand. Or, if one leg is injured or weak, hold the cane in the hand opposite the weak leg. In other words, if you can’t bear weight on your right leg, hold the cane in your left hand.
  2. Step forward with your weak leg at the same time you move the quad cane forward about the length of the opposite foot. As with a standard cane, don’t make the mistake of stepping too far out or to one side or you increase the risk of falling.
  3. Place the cane tip on the floor, making sure that all four legs of the cane make contact with the ground.
  4. Press down on the cane handle while leaning forward and transferring your weight to the cane and weak leg.
  5. Move your good leg forward so both of your feet and the cane are in line with each other.
  6. Repeat.

When using a cane, it’s important to walk with a slow and even pace. You don’t want to drag the cane behind you or walk too quickly, as this can lead to falls. Try to maintain a natural stride and only use the cane for balance and support.

With a little practice, you’ll be able to walk confidently with a cane.

How Do You Climb Stairs Using A Cane?

Climbing or descending stairs with a cane takes practice.

What side do you use a cane on? When using a cane on the stairs it is “’Up with the good, down with the bad’ makes this easy to remember,” according to Lori Ramage, a physical therapist who is quoted on the Arthritis.org website.

To go up a flight of stairs:

  • Move your unaffected (or strongest) leg first. Place that foot up onto the first stair step. For example, if your right leg is on your weak side, use your strong left leg to take the first step.
  • Next, straighten your affected (weaker) leg at the same time you move your cane to the first stair step (the one you have your strong leg on).
  • Repeat until you reach the top of the stairs.

Reverse this pattern when coming down the stairs:

  • Put your weight on your stronger (unaffected) leg (example: if your left leg is on your stronger side, put your weight on that leg).
  • Move the cane down to the next step below you.
  • Then move the weaker leg down to the step the cane is now balancing on.
  • Last, step down with your stronger, uninjured leg. Both legs and the cane should now all be on the same stair step.
  • Repeat, step by step until you reach the bottom.

*Sometimes it is recommended to move the cane and weak leg simultaneously while descending stairs, but I think this cane make you too unstable in some cases. When I used my dad’s cane while I was weak from getting chemo, I was much more balanced when I used the method I detailed above.

Here’s a video so you can see the best way to use a cane on the stairs:

What Is A Bariatric Cane?

A bariatric cane is a heavy duty cane that can withstand more weight-bearing pressure than standard canes. Bariatric canes often use offset handles combined with strong frames. Some models are capable of supporting a person weighing up to 500 pounds.

Where Can I Fill A Prescription For A Cane?

Most pharmacies carry canes, or you can order one online. You may also be able to get a cane from your local hospital or rehabilitation center. If you are trying to get the cost of your cane covered by Medicare, you’ll need to get a cane by prescription at a durable medical equipment store (medical supply store).

Medicare does cover canes, but the type of cane that is covered may vary depending on your state. Cane coverage is usually classified as a “durable medical equipment” (DME) and is typically covered under Medicare Part B.

If you would like to get Medicare coverage, your doctor must write a prescription for a cane if you need one. You then fill the prescription at a durable medical equipment or medical supply store. Be aware that BOTH the doctor writing the prescription and the medical supply store or durable medical equipment store MUST be enrolled in Medicare or the cane won’t be covered.

Medicare will only cover your DME if your doctors and DME suppliers are enrolled in Medicare. Doctors and suppliers have to meet strict standards to enroll and stay enrolled in Medicare. If your doctors or suppliers aren’t enrolled, Medicare won’t pay the claims they submit. 

Medicare.gov

Insurance often limits coverage amounts, so you may only be able to get a basic, single-tip cane. This is particularly true of Medicare which has an established fee schedule that restricts you to the most basic of canes.

That said, the Medicare website says, “Quad canes are covered under Medicare Part B (medical insurance) as durable medical equipment. In order to be eligible for coverage, your Medicare-approved health care provider must first certify through written documentation that the quad cane is medically necessary for you. The equipment is meant to be used only by you, in your home.”

Frequently Asked Questions About Canes

Are there any safety concerns with using a walking cane?

If not used properly, walking canes can actually increase your risk of falling. Be sure to follow the instructions above for proper use, and always ask your doctor or physical therapist for guidance before using a walking cane.

Additionally, always inspect your cane prior to use to make sure there are no loose or broken parts. Finally, be sure to choose a cane that is the right height for you. A cane that is too short or too tall can cause you to stoop or lean, which can lead to falls.

If used properly, walking canes can be a safe and effective way to improve your mobility. However, if you have any concerns about using a cane, be sure to talk to your doctor or physical therapist first. They can help you choose the right cane for your needs and give you instructions on how to use it safely.

What are some common mistakes when using a cane?

Common mistakes people make when using a cane include not using the right cane type, not gripping the handle of the cane correctly, not using the proper arm position, and not keeping the cane close to the body. Additionally, people often forget to keep their weight evenly distributed between their cane and their strong side (the good leg). Lastly, many people walk too fast with their cane, which can lead to instability.

Related Reading

When Do You Know It Is Time For A Walking Cane?

Who Should Use A Quad Cane?

Quad Cane Vs Regular Cane: Which Is Better?

How To Fall Proof A Home For Elderly Parents

How To Get An Elderly Person Up The Stairs

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