You’ve probably never thought about the purpose of a cane unless you need to use one. Depending on your individual needs, a cane can assist with any one of a number of purposes:
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“Anyone with back or lower extremity pain, joint instability or balance deficits may be at a higher risk of falls and may benefit from using a cane,” says physical therapist Nicole O’Donnell, PT, MPT.
“This can include patients with arthritic ankles, knees, hips, or back, but the use of a cane is certainly not limited to just arthritic conditions. A cane may be helpful if you suffer from pain on one side of the body,” she says.
Where to shop for a cane
You can find canes at medical supply stores, discount stores, pharmacies or online, Ms. O’Donnell says. Prices vary between basic models and those with special features, but aluminum canes are available for between $20 and $40. Wooden canes cost less.
“Don’t rush,” Ms. O’Donnell says. “Take as much time as you need to select the cane that’s right for you.”
Which height to get
When standing up straight, the handle of the cane should be at the crease of your wrist, Ms. O’Donnell says.
To account for heel heights, wear your walking shoes when testing a cane. If you wear shoes with heels of varying heights, choose an aluminum cane with adjustable height. A cane that is too long forces excessive wrist flexion and can put unnecessary strain on your shoulder and even your low back.
Which grips to look for
Cane grips can be thick, thin, firm, padded, L-shaped, T-shaped or rounded.
Unless there’s a reason for a specific grip, choose a cane that is comfortable and useful. A good grip is especially important if you have hand arthritis.
Avoid candy-cane shaped canes, Ms. O’Donnell says. Grabbing a curved grip can be challenging and won’t center your weight over the shaft of the cane. Look for a cane with a straight grip that is offset but centered over the shaft.
Although wooden canes are less expensive, aluminum shafts are lighter, adjustable, easier to maneuver and usually come with more features.
If you live in a cold, icy climate, invest in a cane with a pivoting spike that can be removed indoors. If you live in a warm climate, consider a cane with a rubber tip that can be replaced periodically.
People with pain in their joints on both sides of their bodies may benefit more from a walker. A walker provides a wider base to help with balance. Some models have to be lifted and set down as you walk, while others roll on wheels. Walker grips come in plastic or foam models and vary in thickness. If you have trouble grasping objects, invest in a walker with a larger grip.
Adjust your walker so that the top of the device lines up with the crease of your wrists when your arms are down and relaxed. Your elbows should bend comfortably at about 30 degrees.
Ms. O’Donnell says she often sees patients who come in with a cane that doesn’t offer the assistance they need.
“Have your balance and walking evaluated by a physical therapist to make sure you’re fitted with the right cane or walker for your individual needs,” she says.