Walking aids and who can benefit from them...

It could be that you experience difficulty, pain, or both when physically moving your limbs, or you might have a condition which can leave you feeling breathless, dizzy and in need of some extra support. In either case there’s a wide variety of walking aids available to provide you with additional stability or reassurance, whether you need it for a short time or for the long run.

Just a few of the common conditions that might lead you to choose and use a walking aid include: arthritis; lower limb fractures or broken bones; balance problems; injuries to the legs, feet or back; sprains and strains; diabetic ulcers or wounds; walking impairment due to a stroke or brain injury; lower leg amputation; obesity; cerebral palsy; heart or respiratory problems; visual impairment.

In many of these cases, your doctor or medical team will automatically prescribe the best type of aid for you, and might even supply you with one. In others, such as minor or temporary physical impairments, or simply the gradual onset of old age, you might choose your own walking aid, although it’s always best to seek medical advice too.

Walking aids range from a simple cane, which you might use occasionally or full-time, through to more complex pieces of equipment which generally provide greater support. We’ll take a look at a few here, but we’re not including wheelchairs or mobility scooters, as these are an alternative to walking rather than an aid to it.

Canes and walking sticks: It is estimated that one in 10 people over the age of 65 uses some kind of walking stick or cane. You might use a single cane or two, depending on your needs. They help to transmit the load from the legs to the upper body, but in doing so they do put extra pressure on the hands and wrists, which might take some time to adjust. Canes are great for anyone who has problems balancing or is at risk of falling. It’s important to get the right type and length of cane for you. They also come with various styles of handle, from a traditional ‘crook’ handle to a sculpted ergonomic grip. If you’re choosing your own, experiment to find what’s best for you. Most people fit anti-slip rubber feet or ‘ferrules’ to their canes, which also protect them from wear. The days when using a cane carried a social stigma are thankfully fading. Many retailers offer canes in attractive designs, making them as much a fashion accessory as a walking aid. Adjustable and folding canes are useful and specialist canes are available for visually impaired people. For people needing greater stability, a relatively new development is the ‘quad cane’, which splits into four feet at its base.

Crutches: These walking aids transfer more of the load from the legs to the arms and upper body, with less pressure on the wrists and hands. They generally offer greater support, are often used temporarily while recovering from an accident or surgery and come in two main types. The first is underarm or ‘axillary’ crutches. One end goes under the armpit and against the upper ribcage, while the user also has a handgrip lower down to help spread the weight and move the crutch between steps. The second type is forearm or ‘lofstrand’ crutches, which are shorter and combine a handgrip with a metal or plastic cuff which fits around the forearm, below the elbow. These are more commonly used by people with longer-term needs. A third but far less common type is the platform crutch, which allows the user to rest their forearm on a horizontal platform while also holding a grip. These are used for specific types of injury or by users with a weaker hand grip. Most crutches are fully adjustable to fit the user.

Walkers: Also known as ‘Zimmer frames’, these aids comprise a sturdy but light metal framework with four legs which provide maximum stability and support to the user. Standard models have a three-sided frame which surrounds the front and sides of the user and has comfortable ergonomic handgrips at the top of the frame. The user raises the frame and places if further in front of them, then steps forward into it while holding the handgrips, then repeats the process. Moving with a walker can be slower, but is very stable. Some walkers have wheels or sliders on the front two legs, which means the user doesn’t have to lift it off the ground. Instead the frame can be tilted and moved forward, then set back on all four feet before the user steps forward.

Rollators: This is a type of walker which has four (or sometimes three) wheels instead of feet, and which can be ‘braked’ using levers next to the handgrips. The brakes can usually be locked on and the rollator frame will often incorporate a built-in seat, allowing the user to turn through 180 degrees and sit down for a rest, with the wheels locked. Some models also incorporate a small bag or basket and rollators are a popular choice for people with restricted mobility to use on a short shopping trip or excursion. They are great for people who like to get out and about, but need some extra reassurance while walking along and a seat to rest on whenever necessary.

Other walking aids: There are a few other less common walking aids which might suit specific needs. For example, ‘walker-cane hybrids’ are a halfway option between a cane and a walker frame, offering more support than a cane but less than a walker. They are light but strong and can be used with one or both hands. Another unusual option is a ‘knee walker’. Similar to a rollator, this allows the user to rest one leg, bent at the knee, on a raised and padded platform on wheels. They can then push themselves along with their good leg, similar to a push-scooter, using handlebars with brakes to steer and control the knee walker.

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