As a dental hygienist, I see plenty of senior patients who use canes 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 a more weight-bearing aid like a walker, rollator, or wheel chair.
How does a cane help you walk? A single point cane steadies you as you walk by increasing your base of support. Canes distribute your weight more evenly, giving 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.
Reasons For Needing A Cane
Generally, a cane 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 needing 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. 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 a variety of canes out there, as well as an assortment 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
Standard canes have a single tip at the bottom. Multi-tip tripod canes have three tips at the end, while quad canes have four tips (see photo).
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:
- Fritz handles are an uneven t-shape. They are good for people with arthritis because they provide a better grip for stiff, sore fingers.
- 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:
- Can you walk on uneven ground without assistance?
- Can you easily climb or descend a flight of stairs?
- Do you avoid doing certain activities that require you to walk because you don’t want to risk a fall?
- Does walking cause joint or limb pain?
- Can you walk every day without needing assistance (such as holding onto a hand rail)?
- Are you concerned that you might fall if you walk unassisted?
- Do you frequently look for something to hold onto when you walk (such as a chair, a railing, the back of a sofa, etc.)?
- Do you tire easily when walking?
- 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 you 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 doctor or other health professional to see if they recommend that the person use a cane.
What Is The Best Cane For Balance Problems?
Without a doubt, quad canes are the best cane for balance problems. 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 a standard cane 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 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 large 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.
How Do You Walk With A Cane For Balance?
If you need to use a cane, it needs to be with you at all times and easily accessible. You must walk while using it or it won’t help you stay safe.
To use a STANDARD CANE properly:
- Try to stand upright – don’t lean forward. Also don’t lean to one side.
- Hold the cane in your hand on the “good” side – the one opposite from your painful or weak leg, hip, or knee.
- Put your weight on your good leg, then 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.
- Press down on the cane to transfer your weight to the cane and your bad leg.
- Move your good leg forward a short stride length.
To walk with a QUAD CANE properly:
- 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.
- 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 reaching too far out or to one side or you increase the risk of falling.
- Place the cane tip on the floor, making sure that all four legs of the cane make contact with the ground.
- Press down on the cane handle while leaning forward and transferring your weight to the cane and weak leg.
- Move your good leg forward so both of your feet and the cane are in line with each other.
How Do You Climb Stairs Using A Cane?
Climbing or descending stairs with a cane takes practice. 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 weak, 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 stronger, 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 (unaffected) 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?
You can get a cane by prescription at a durable medical equipment store. 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.