Walking aids can provide support for a range of physical problems to increase safety, independence and confidence. Understanding the different types of walking aids will help you to make the right choice for you.
Walking sticks offer the simplest level of support and can be very effective if measured and used properly. The stick provides an additional point of contact with the floor, therefore widening your base of support. This can help counteract balance difficulties or mild instability. It is important that the stick is at the correct height to offer sufficient support while avoiding unhealthy postures, so make sure you get good advice on selecting a stick.
As a rough guide to measuring a walking stick, place it around 15cm from the outside of the foot then ensure the handle height is at the crease of the wrist. The wrist should be flexed to around 20 degrees when being used.
Although crutches are sometimes prescribed after an injury, they generally have more contraindications for use compared to a stick and are rarely suitable as a long-term walking aid.
Specialist walking sticks are also available to provide further comfort or stability. Sticks with ergonomically designed hands, called ‘fischer’ sticks, can be helpful for those suffering arthritis or other difficulties with their hands. These grips are available with right and left mouldings for increased comfort and functionality.
Tri-sticks or quad-sticks are sticks with either three or four feet at the bottom to provide additional stability. However, they generally need to be held slightly further out to the side of the body, which can cause other problems with posture, gait and balance so should be chosen with caution. They are however often appropriate for people with one sided weakness following stroke or other neurological injury.
Walking frames offer more support to the user due to more points of contact with the ground and therefore a larger base of support. A variety of types are available, which should be carefully selected based on the level of support needed and the places it will be used.
Standard walking frames have four legs with rubber stoppers and offer the most support. They are designed for indoor use for people who need to support some of their weight through their arms while stepping or who need a very stable base of support. They must be lifted forward with each step, so can be a little more cumbersome, but offer a very high level of stability.
Wheeled walking frame are similar to static walking frames, but have two small wheels at the front and two stoppers at the back. They still provide a high level of support and can be used to bear some weight, but can be pushed forward more easily as you walk rather than lifted. They are designed for indoor use as the wheels are not large or shock absorbing enough for outdoor surfaces.
Three-wheeled frames, sometimes knows as ‘delta’ or ‘tri-walkers’, have a triangular frame with three large wheels and handbrakes for added control. As they are fully wheeled they are faster than indoor walking frames and you cannot put as much weight through them, though they can be helpful to support balance and a smooth gait. Generally designed for outdoor use, the larger wheels cope better with uneven surfaces. They can be used indoors, but might be bulky in small spaces. Many also have a storage bag in the centre.
Four-wheeled frames, or ‘rollators’, have four large wheels with brakes, offering a wider base of support than the three-wheeled versions. Many have a seat or storage unit in the centre so that, with the brakes securely fitted, they can be used as a seat as needed. This frame is generally much larger and suited more to outdoor use.
Consider carefully how much weight bearing and what type of balance support you need from your walking aid before purchasing. A physiotherapist or occupational therapist can offer individualised advice on which walking aid to use, correct measurements and safe usage.