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A brief guide to the different types of walking aid

12:00am | & Tips and Advice

If you feel insecure when you walk, experience pain or worry about falling, you should consider getting a walking aid.

You might need a walking aid as a temporary measure, for example, while recovering from an accident or illness, or it could be a long-term requirement due to ongoing or progressive mobility issues. These might be linked to a specific medical condition, or simply due to ageing and becoming naturally less agile.

Walking aids come in various types and the one you use will depend on the level of support you need. You might be provided with a walking aid by your medical team, in which case you should also receive support and advice from a physiotherapist or occupational therapist on the correct way to use it. They type you need might also change over time.

For example, when recovering from an accident you might start out with crutches and later move to a walking cane and then nothing at all. Or if your mobility is age or health-related you might go the other way, starting out with a cane and later moving to a walking frame for extra support. Below are the main types of walking aid available today. We are not looking at wheelchairs or mobility scooters here, as they provide an alternative to walking rather than an aid to it:

Canes and walking sticks: Canes are great for anyone who has problems balancing, is at risk of falling, or needs some extra support when standing.  Whether you use one or a pair, it’s important to get the right type and length for you. They come with various styles of handle, from a traditional curved ‘crook’ handle to a sculpted ergonomic handgrip. 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 metal canes are useful and specialist canes are available for visually impaired people. For people needing greater stability, a relatively new development is the ‘tripod’ or ‘quad cane’, which splits into three or four feet at its base. Some people will only need a cane on rough or uneven terrain, in which case a walking pole or a pair of them is a great choice.

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 than from canes. They generally offer greater support and come in two main types. The first is underarm or ‘axillary’ crutches. One end goes below 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 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 within the frame for a rest, with the wheels locked. Some models 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.

Having the right type of walking aid can make a big difference to your ongoing mobility, providing both the necessary physical support and the confidence to carry on. If mobility starts to become an issue, the worst thing you can do is give in and become immobile, which will have a negative impact on both your physical and mental wellbeing. The correct walking aid is a valuable ally in fighting the battle against immobility.

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