Dear Savvy Senior,
I have severe arthritis in my knee and could use a walking cane to help me get around. Is there anything I should know about canes before I buy one?
When it comes to choosing a cane for balance and support most people don't give it much thought, but they should. Walking canes come in hundreds of different styles, shapes and sizes today, so you need to take into account your needs and preferences to ensure you choose one that's appropriate for you. Here are some tips that can help.
Types of Canes
The first thing you need to consider is how much support you need. That will help you determine the kind of cane you choose. The three basic types of canes you'll have to choose from include:
1. Straight canes: These are basic, single point canes that typically incorporate a rounded "crook" handle or "L-shaped" ergonomic handle. Usually made of lightweight aluminum or wood, most of the aluminum models are adjustable in height and some even fold up.
2. Offset-handle canes: These also are single point straight canes, but come with a swan neck curve in the upper part of the shaft that puts the user's weight directly over the cane tip for added stability. These canes are typically aluminum, adjustable-height and come with a flat, soft grip handle that's easy on the hands.
Both straight canes and offset-handle canes are best suited for people who have a slight walking impairment.
3. Quad canes: Also called broad based canes, these work best for people who need maximum weight bearing and support. Quad canes comes with four separate tips (some have three tips) at the base, they usually have an offset flat handle, and can remain standing when you let go of it which is very convenient.
Fitting the Cane
Once you decide on the type of cane, you need to make sure it fits. Stand up with your arms hanging straight down at your side. The top of the cane should line up with the crease in your wrist, so your arm is slightly bent at the elbow when you grip the cane.
The cane should also have a rubber tip at the bottom to prevent slipping. A worn or torn rubber tip is dangerous, so check the tip frequently to ensure it's in good condition and replace it when necessary. Rubber tips come in different sizes depending on the shaft diameter, and can usually be purchased in multipacks at your local pharmacy.
The grip is also very important, so choose one that's ergonomically designed, or one that has a molded rubber or foam grip that's comfortable to hold on to.
And if you travel much, consider getting a folding cane that can be packed or stored away easily.
How to Use
When using a cane, it should always be held in the hand opposite of the leg that needs support. For example, if your knee pain is on your left side, you should use the cane in your right hand. The cane should then move forward as you step forward with the bad leg.
If you have to go up stairs, you should lead with the good leg. And when you go down stairs, you should put your cane on the step first and then step down with your bad leg.
The Mayo Clinic offers a slide show that will show you how to choose and use a cane. It's also a smart idea to work with a physical therapist.
Where to Buy
You can buy canes at drugstores, discount retailers, medical supply stores and online, usually between $10 and $50. You'll also be happy to know that Medicare covers canes with a written prescription from a physician.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.