In fact, canes work exceptionally well for balance and stability, and pain management - but only if you use them correctly. This guide will teach you exactly how to use a cane properly and ensure that you get the most out of your walking cane!
How Does a Cane Help You Walk?
Canes accomplish two goals. They improve the user’s:
Canes are useful for people with a variety of health issues and health concerns that contribute to problems when walking.
When you use a cane, the load carried by your knees, hips, and ankles is significantly reduced. The more weight you put on the cane, the less work your joints are doing with each step. If you have weak joints or chronic pain, the mere presence of a cane can be a tremendous relief.
Canes act almost like a third leg, making it easier to balance because your hips and core are no longer responsible for keeping your center of gravity in place. When your hips, back, and abdominals cannot keep your center of gravity from shifting, you are much more likely to lose balance and fall. This is due to an increase in something called “postural sway”- the way your center of gravity shifts naturally as you stand or walk. If your postural sway is too great, you can lose your balance easily and risk a fall. The presence of a cane means that your postural sway doesn’t matter nearly as much - if you lose your balance, you simply lean more heavily on the cane until you feel centered again.
This is a huge benefit for people who struggle with motor skills such as stroke patients. In clinical studies, the use of a cane contributed to an immediate improvement in balance and reduced fall risk. This was found to be true for stroke patients as well as people who have had hip replacements in a separate study.
How to Measure for a Cane
The benefits of using a cane hinge largely on whether or not the cane is the right size. If it’s too short, you’ll be stooping over to use it, hurting your posture and leading to back pain.
If the cane is too tall, it will throw off your balance by increasing your postural sway rather than reducing it. In fact, a study confirmed this when it found that elderly women (who too often use canes that are too tall) had increased postural sway and a higher fall risk than people with correctly-sized canes.
How Tall Should a Cane Be?
There are two measurements that you should do when shopping for canes. Both measurements should yield roughly the same number, but they may be an inch or two different; that’s okay.
The first measurement is the distance from the floor to your hand when your arm is bent at a 15-degree angle. Proper use of a cane requires your arm to be at this angle when holding it at your side. So, hold your arm at your side, bend your elbow to 15 degrees, and take your first measurement.
The second measurement is the distance between the floor and your wrist when your arms are held flat at your side. This measurement confirms the accuracy of the first and helps you find the ideal range of cane sizes for your body.
How to Properly Hold and Use a Cane
Something that is very important to keep in mind is to use proper walking form when you walk with a cane. The point of a cane is to make proper and healthy walking techniques possible- make sure that you are doing that! Correcting your gait is the best way to get rid of pain and keep it at bay in the long term.
This YouTube video from respected and entertaining physical therapists Bob and Brad will show you the correct way to walk:
In that video, you'll learn the technique and walking posture that will let you walk in the way your body needs to. You’d be surprised how many chronic aches and pains come from slight problems with your gait. Over time, those slight problems turn into bigger ones, eventually developing into full-blown limping. The negative effects of poor gait are impossible to overstate: walking with incorrect form is very bad for your health!
When you use a cane to help you walk, you want to work hard to make your walking healthy. Of course, people with more serious joint and bone issues may have no choice but to limp- if that describes you, just use the cane to the best of your ability. If you should be able to walk normally, though, the healthiest thing you can do is to make sure your cane helps you accomplish that.
On Which Side Should You Use a Cane?
There are many factors that determine the correct hand to hold your cane in.
First and foremost, people who are using canes to accommodate issues primarily concentrated in one leg (nerve, bone, or muscle damage that impedes walking) should use a cane on their opposite hand. This will ensure that you have a safe and normal walking motion that preserves your center of gravity.
If your right side is the problem, hold the cane in your left hand. This way, your arm movements will keep in line with the natural swinging rhythm of people’s arms as they walk. Then, when you step forward with your right leg, move the cane with it. Make a habit of placing the point of the cane parallel with your opposite foot, not in front of it or behind it.
How to Use a Cane for Balance
Using a cane for balance is rather simple. Rather than leaning on the cane every step, the best way to keep upright with a cane is to only lean on it when needed. The most important thing to remember is the proper placement of the cane’s point: parallel to the foot opposite the cane.
People who struggle with balance don’t need their cane to be “on the clock” 100% of the time. Rather, when they do have the occasional loss of balance, they need to be absolutely certain that their cane will be there to keep them from falling down.
This is why getting the placement of the cane is so crucial. If the cane point is too far behind your center of gravity, you won’t be able to catch yourself before you take a tumble. If the point is too far in front of you, the cane will push you backward instead of holding you upright. If balance is your chief reason to use a cane, make sure it’s always being placed under you so that it will hold you up when you need it!
How to Use a Cane With a Bad Knee
If you’ve got weak or damaged knees or if you suffer from knee osteoarthritis, don’t be afraid to put a little bit of weight on your cane. The more you lean on it, the less weight you are putting on your bad knee. That reduces strain, swelling, and pain by reducing the level of stress you are putting on your knee.
How to Use a Cane With Back Pain and Lower Back Problems
If you have back pain and feel it most often after standing or walking for long periods, it’s likely that a gait issue is to blame. When you aren’t using proper walking mechanics, extra strain and pressure will be placed on your lower back, particularly in the sciatic nerve. These issues don’t appear out of the blue; it builds up over time, almost imperceptible until the pain becomes severe.
Similar to knee and hip issues, using a cane to reduce pressure on your sciatic nerve and lower back is a good way to relieve pain. Place some of your body weight on the cane with each step to reduce the amount of weight your knees, hips, and lower back are responsible for managing. This, combined with a focus on proper walking gait, will lead over time to decreased pain and soreness in your lower back.
Why Do You Use a Cane on the Opposite Side of the Injury?
It’s true that if you use a cane on the same leg that you have an injury on, you will be able to place more weight on the cane and therefore relieve more pressure from your leg. However, you also severely limit your ability to balance yourself and simultaneously are forced to “hobble” with your cane rather than walk.
Using a cane on the opposite side of the injury keeps your center of gravity balanced in the center of your body- exactly how it should be. It also lets you walk normally without the “hobbling” motion you would have if you used the cane on the same side of the injury.
If your injuries are so severe that you feel you must use the cane on the injured side, it’s likely that you need crutches or a walker instead of a cane. Your injury is likely too serious for a cane to be medically beneficial.
How to Use a Cane on Stairs
Getting up and down a flight of stairs might leave the average person out of breath, but for people with limited mobility, it’s a bit more difficult. The best way to use stairs with a cane is to plant the cane (and your “bad” leg) firmly on the ground and use your “good” leg to step up/down.
As you are stepping, your bad leg will work in conjunction with the cane to keep you balanced and safe. Take each step one at a time, using your good leg to move forward each time. It might be slow, but it’s much safer than taking a tumble because you tried to move too quickly on a flight of stairs!
How to Correct Your Walking Mechanics
All of this advice is helpful, but it can be hard to fully apply unless you know what exactly is wrong with your walking gait. If you’ve got chronic pain, a lack of stability, or have developed a limp, you should do your best to use a cane to correct your gait. How do you do that?
Here are three solutions, listed in order from the most effective to the least effective:
Visit a Physical Therapist
This is far and away the best method of evaluating your gait. A physical therapist will observe you walking and give you pointers on how to correct your walking mechanics in ways that are tailored specifically to you. As great as YouTube videos and online advice can be, it can’t replace the one-on-one help you can receive from a trained physical therapist.
Visit a Running/Orthotic Shoe Store
Not everyone has health insurance that makes a visit to a physical therapist possible. The average cost of a single session of physical therapy, paid out of pocket, is $75-$150; for many seniors, that might not be an option.
If you don’t have health insurance that’ll cover a visit to a professional, the next best thing you can do is visit a running or orthotic shoe store. At these stores, staff are usually trained to evaluate the gait of a customer so that they can recommend a shoe that will promote healthy walking. While they won’t have the expertise that a physical therapist would, they can still help you get an objective and helpful opinion on your walking gait.
Finally, if you have access to a camera (such as on your smartphone), you can take a short video of yourself walking across a room. It’s nearly impossible to detect gait issues without having someone observe you; in a pinch, you can do this yourself.
Film yourself walking across a room and compare that video to online videos of proper gait demonstrations. If you detect any abnormalities in your gait, you can work to correct them on your own. This is the easiest, albeit the least effective, way to evaluate your walking mechanics.
How to Adjust a Cane
If you have a height-adjustable walking cane, you are one of the lucky people who gets to customize the fit of their cane to their needs. Adjusting these canes is, for the most part, rather uncomplicated.
Most adjustable canes are held in place by a metal button placed on the shaft; press the button in, and the cane will slide up and down. You can adjust the height of the cane in one-inch increments, more than enough to get it to a comfortable and healthy height.
Properly using a cane is crucial to your ability to maximize its benefits for your health and wellbeing. The most important things to remember are to get a cane that is the right size, use it on the hand opposite your “bad” leg, and to place it parallel to your foot as you step. If you do those things, you’ll be feeling the benefits of your walking cane in no time!
Have questions about proper cane use? Any nuggets of wisdom for other readers who might be using a cane for the first time? Please leave your thoughts below!