Choosing Suitable Walking Aids
Table of Contents
Do you feel weak or unsteady on your feet? Did you have a fall recently? Are you afraid to stand or walk without holding onto something or someone?
We lose balance or become immobile because of many reasons and some of which are:
- Back or legs injuries
- infections of the leg bones or muscles
- Weakness resulting from surgery or prolonged illness
- Arthritis and other joint pains
- Old age
- Diseases involving the central or peripheral nervous systems. For example, stroke, peripheral neuropathy, and Parkinson’s Disease.
Walking aids may help to improve your mobility and regain independence. However, getting a suitable device and using it correctly is essential. Otherwise, instead of helping you, the device can hinder your movements and jeopardise your safety.
The first consideration is safety
Various studies found that a relatively large number of elderly falls are related to walking aids. A high percentage of walking aids in use may be inappropriate, of incorrect height, or used incorrectly. A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society1 in 2009 estimated that about 47,000 older Americans are treated in emergency departments with falls associated with walkers and canes yearly.
A recent study in Belgium2 also warned that using walking aids without proper training could increase the risk of falling. It further suggested that seniors should be given adequate training to safely operate a walker or cane, including appropriate gait patterns and ways to avoid falls. The training should also include complicated manoeuvres such as opening and closing doors with the aid.
Therefore, before purchasing any walking aid, your needs, lifestyle, and home environment should be assessed by qualified professionals first. A similar consideration applies if you intend to get a walking aid for a family member or someone you care for. Also, remember that it may be more difficult for the elderly to learn or remember how to use a walking aid.
Get professional help
If you are unsure why you are losing balance or dragging your feet, consult your doctor to determine the cause and get treatment if necessary. When you are ready for routine activities, the doctor will refer you to a physiotherapist (physical therapist) for professional help and mobility advice.
You can also access the physiotherapist service directly. In the UK and Ireland, physiotherapists are based in hospitals, community health centres, or private practices.
The physiotherapists will assess your gait, balance and strength. Based on their findings, they will make recommendations and advice and help you choose the most appropriate walking aid.
They will ensure that the walking stick or walker is of the correct height and weight for your physical condition so that it is safe and you can use it comfortably. Besides, they will also advise you about footwear, exercise and the proper technique of using the walking equipment.
Range of walking aids
Walking aids are devices designed to provide support, stability, and balance to individuals with mobility issues, including the elderly, people with disabilities, and those recovering from injuries or surgeries. These devices come in various types, including canes, walkers, crutches, and rollators.
Walking stick and Walking cane
Although often used interchangeably, there is a difference between “waking stick” and “walking cane”. The main difference between the two are:
- Design: A walking stick is typically a long, slender pole with a handle at the top, while a walking cane usually has a curved or crooked handle and a shorter shaft.
- Material: Walking sticks are often made from natural materials such as wood, while walking canes can be made from a wider variety of materials, including metal, plastic, and even carbon fibre.
- Purpose: Walking sticks are often used for hiking and other outdoor activities. Walking canes are typically used by people who need assistance with balance and stability due to age, injury, or disability.
- Decorative value: Walking sticks are often carved or adorned with decorative elements, while walking canes can be decorative but are typically more functional.
When used correctly, both walking stick and cane can relieve pressure on sore knees, hips, ankles and feet and improve balance. It tends to be used by the elderly and those with moderately reduced strength. You need enough power to use a walking stick or cane since your arm must partially support your body’s weight. The main criterion for choosing a walking stick or cane is the height and the type of handle or grip. It is essential that the grip fits you well and feels comfortable when walking.
Tripods and quadrupeds
A tripod or quadruped is much like a standard walking cane, except that they have three or four rubber-capped feet at the base of the shafts. Therefore, they are freestanding and give more support and stability than standard walking canes, though be aware that these are slightly heavier too.
The average walking or pulpit frames are known as Zimmer frames and are mainly used indoors. They are suitable for those with poor balance, weak legs, and maybe a rehabilitation aid after a prolonged illness. Although it provides ample base support, it prevents a natural walking pattern because the user has to stop and pick up the frame to forward each step. Therefore, it is unsuitable for those who get tired quickly or patients with Parkinson’s disease. Wheeled walking frames are a better option as they do not require lifting for every step.
Rollators are similar to wheeled walkers, but a seat or shopping basket may be included in its design in addition to the handlebars, frame and wheels. If used properly, they are suitable for outdoor activities such as walking and shopping because the users can walk naturally with them and sit down to rest when the occasion calls for them. However, if you need to lean or push against the frame for support, it may run away if the brake is not applied.
Crutches are used after a leg injury or surgery if you only need temporary help with balance and stability. You need strength and good coordination to use crutches properly. Hence, they are not suitable for the elderly.
Reducing the risk of falls
To minimise the risk of falls whilst using a walking aid:
- No loose rugs, trailing cables and clutter on the floor. The entrance of all rooms and the route of movement must be kept clear at all times.
- If you have stairs in your house, keeping one walking aid upstairs and one downstairs is much safer. You should use the handrails when going up and down the stairs. NEVER use a walking aid on the stairs.
- Do not hold on to a walking frame or stick to get in and out of a chair. They are not stable enough. You should push up with your hands on the arms of the chair and only take hold of the frame or stick once standing. If necessary, ask to practise this with a healthcare professional.
- Walking equipment should not be used in wet floor areas. If you need to access a wet room or shower area, ask the advice of an occupational therapist. It is safer to install grab rails in the bathroom.
- Footwear should be well-fitted, secure, and supportive as you walk.
- Your walking aid must be kept in good condition. For example, replace the rubber tips at the bottom of the stick or the feet of the tripods if they are worn.
The many benefits of using walking aids include the following:
- Improved mobility
Walking aids provide support and stability, allowing individuals to move around more confidently and easily.
- Increased independence
Walking aids allow individuals to perform daily activities independently, including standing up from a seated position and carrying items.
- Reduced risk of falls
Walking aids reduce the risk of falls and injuries by providing support and stability.
- Improved quality of life
Walking aids can improve an individual’s quality of life by allowing them to remain active and engaged in daily activities.
All these benefits can be materialised if we put due consideration into choosing the right equipment for the right purpose.
- Stevens, J.A. et al., 2009, ‘Unintentional Fall Injuries Associated with Walkers and Canes in Older Adults Treated in U.S. Emergency Departments’, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 57(8), 1464–1469
- Roman de Mettelinge, T. et al., 2015, ‘Understanding the Relationship Between Walking Aids and Falls in Older Adults: A Prospective Cohort Study’, Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy, 38(3), 127-132