A gait aid is any device that you use to help you walk- crutches, canes, or a walker. Many seniors use a gait aid of some kind to get around. Sometimes gait aids are for temporary use, like after an injury or a surgery, and some people use them for the long term.
As a physiotherapist, one of the first things I do at any assessment, no matter what the person’s complaint, is to look at what gait aid the client is currently using.
In almost every case, there is room for improvement with the type, fit, or way for the client to be using their gait aid. And I would estimate that at least 50% of the time, a client who uses a cane is making one of the following 4 mistakes:
1. Beauty over function.
Does your cane look something like this?
In the course of my career, I have seen some beautifully decorative hand-carved canes. They are often family heirlooms, travel souvenirs, or the product of the client’s own artistic talents.
It always makes me a little sad to tell the client that these types of canes are best left on display. They, unfortunately, aren’t usually well-suited to be functional gait aids. Often the handles aren’t appropriately shaped to distribute weight along the hand, and can even cause nerve compression in the wrist or palm. They aren’t as easy to hold or as stable as a properly designed cane handle. Also, because the cane is often made of wood and are of a fixed height, they are almost always the wrong height for the client.
Instead, choose a cane with a soft grip, or one that is molded to your hand. Arthritic hands will prefer a larger grip. “Offset” handles are generally better than “round” but this is based on personal preference.
This doesn’t mean a cane has to be unsightly- there are many canes available in a variety of colours and patterns- I have one client who has one to go with every outfit!
2. Worn out cane tip
If you have a cane, take a moment right now and turn it upside down. For starters, ensure there is a rubber tip at the end of your cane (I run across the occasional person who has lost theirs). Then check wear: is there any visible wearing on the rubber tip? If so, it needs to be replaced. Really!
Worn cane tips are dangerously slippery on wet or icy surfaces. And they often wear at an angle, which means you’re not getting full contact on the bottom of the cane for full stability.
Replacement tips are available at any pharmacy, and are usually easy to replace with no tools required.
3. Wrong hand
Are you making the common mistake of using your cane on the same side as your pain? Watch the first 10 seconds of the following video- one that makes physiotherapists cringe around the world.
The popular TV character “House” always uses his cane on the wrong side of his body. And he’s supposed to be a doctor!
If you have pain or weakness in one leg (in your hip, knee, ankle or foot) you should be using your cane on the OPPOSITE side. I will say it again (because for some reason people sometimes don’t believe me?!) – cane goes on the OPPOSITE side of the affected leg.
This will help you unload weight from the painful area, and have a more natural gait pattern. Don’t hobble around like House! You, unlike him, now know better.
4. Wrong height.
To ensure a good fit, having an adjustable cane is best. Wooden canes need to be cut to fit and so you only have one shot at it if you cut it too short.
Fitting a cane can be a bit tricky by yourself, but find a full length mirror and try the following steps:
- Stand tall hold your cane slightly in front of your toe. (Wait- have you got it on the correct side?!)
- Arm should have a slight (15 degree) bend
- Now relax your hand by your side. The top of the cane should be level with the crease of your wrist
If you’re not sure if you’ve got the right height, have a physiotherapist check you and your cane to make sure you are safe and standing with the correct posture.
Later this week, I’ll be posting options for accessorizing your cane (for function, sorry, the colour coordination with your outfit is up to you!).