Using A Cane – The Right Way

A leg injury, leg pain, stiff joints or balance issues can leave a person struggling to maintain mobility. For those with a severe injury, crutches may be a solution. For others dealing with chronic falls, a walker or rolling walker may help.

But for those who are fairly mobile and just need a little help stabilizing their gait, or to remove pressure from a painful lower limb, a cane can be a great option. In fact, a cane can decrease the load on a hip by as much as 40%. Additionally, the curve-handled stick can help reduce falls, ease walking and improve weight bearing.

The trick is you’ve got to use a cane correctly. Otherwise, you can end up sore from poor posture, improper movement or strained joints.

Believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to use a cane.

Using a cane correctly starts with selecting one that best fits the need. That means selecting the style, height and grip (curved, hooked or braced) that will maximize comfort and usage.
Consider the type of material a cane is made from and how it’s made, hollow or solid. Those details will impact the weight of the device. A cane that’s too heavy might be difficult to maneuver, while a cane that’s too light might not give the sense of adequate support.
Similarly a cane that’s too long will make it harder to pick up and move. A cane that’s too short could cause a lean to one side, compromising balance and form. Choosing between a single or four-pronged tip will depend on the type of support needed as well. 

hand of a senior man holding a cane
Holding the cane for potentially long periods of time during activities such as grocery shopping make having a comfortable grip essential. A good grip that fits the hand will relieve the risk of stress on joints and prevent numbness or pain in the hand or fingers from poor form.
Once the right cane is found, the work begins.

Having a well-fitting cane is a great start to getting more confident with mobility.
Here are some tips to safely and effectively use a cane:

• The elbow should bend at a comfortable angle, about 15 degrees, with a cane in hand. The elbow could be slightly more bent if using the cane for balance.

• The top of the cane should line up with the crease in the wrist when the arm is hanging straight down at the side.

• Hold the cane in hand opposite the side that needs support. Move the cane in unison with the opposite leg.

• For patients with a leg injury or pain, each step with the affected leg, moves the cane, to give support. Each step forward with the unaffected leg, keeps the cane in place.

• Don’t place the cane too far ahead of the next step.

• To climb stairs, hold the cane in the hand opposite of the injured leg and grasp the handrail with the free hand.

To climb up, step on the good leg first, followed by the injured leg and cane. To come down, put the cane on the step below first, followed by the injured leg and then the good leg, which carries the body weight.

It’s not really as hard as it seems but a physical therapist can help refine the use of a cane to create a comfortable and confident user.

For more information or help using your cane, seek out the closest Tidewater Physical Therapy clinic location to you.

by Jessi Voltin PT, DPT, Cert MDT
Clinical Director, Tidewater Physical Therapy, Norge

Magee D. Orthopedic Physical Assessment. St Louis, MO: Sunders; 2006:665