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Canes are ambulatory assistive devices used for improving postural stability. It is generally prescribed for people with moderate levels of mobility impairment, It is typically used when minimal stability is needed[1]. Canes in common day to day usage are known as walking sticks. A cane can either be made of wood or a light metal such as aluminium. The wooden sticks usually have a crook handle and cannot easily have multi point tips. Aluminium walking sticks can either have a flat or "swan-neck" top and have the advantage of being adjustable in length and are able to have multiple points e.g. a tripod.

Multi point walking sticks include tripods and quadripods, both of which can have either flat, swan-neck or ergonomic handles.


A variety of styles and sizes are available[2]. The type of hand grip prescribed or used depends on two important factors[3]: firstly, the comfort of the patient and secondly, the grip's ability to provide adequate surface area to allow effective transfer of weight from the upper extremity to the floor. There are many types of hand grips available like the shotgun handle, crook handle, piston handle etc.

Types of Canes

A detailed understanding of the different types of ambulatory assistive devices and their types, modifications, fitting, stability and indications is essential in prescribing one[4]. Though they are useful, mobility aids such as canes also have increased demands on metabolism and the musculoskeletal system[5]. There are different types of canes which can be classified based on the number of legs it has and the amount of body weight it can support or its use. The type used is dependent on the type of gait disturbance.

Gait disturbances can be divided into three useful categories[6]:   

  • Balance (including sensory and cerebellar systems),
  • Motor (including cerebral initiation of walking and muscular strength), and
  • Joint or skeletal problems.

1.      Single canes:

These are canes with only one leg. They include:

  •    Standard canes: This can also be called a straight cane and it is generally made of wood or aluminum. They are lightweight and inexpensive. The length of the wooden standard canes must be custom fitted to the specific patient while the aluminum standard cane have pins for length adjustment so there is no need for custom fitting. These standard canes are useful for patients that need just an additional point of contact with the floor for balance with little or no weight bearing needed, therefore, increasing the base of support. This cane can be used for patients with.mild sensory or coordination problems found in visual, auditory, vestibular, peripheral proprioceptive, or central cerebellar disease
  •   Offset canes: These canes are usually made from aluminum and the lengths are also adjustable with no need for custom fittings. These canes allow for the patient's weight to be displaced over the shaft of the cane. This cane provides more stability and can be used for occasional weight bearing. The type of patients in need of this cane are those with painful gait disorders like that of mild to moderate antalgic gait gotten from hip or knee osteoarthritis.

2.      Multiple-legged canes:

These are canes with multiple legs. They include:

  •    Quadripod (quad) cane: This is a four-legged cane usually made of aluminium. This cane permits more weight bearing, increases base of support and provides more stability for the patient. It can also stand by itself freeing the patient to use his or her hands. The only disadvantage is that all four legs of the cane must be in contact with the floor during gait to provide stability which hinders fast gait. It is also not suitable for stair climbing. It can be prescribed for hemiplegic patients or patients with moderate to severe antalgic gait from osteoarthritis.
  • Hemi walker[7]: This is also known as a walk cane. It is made of aluminum and has a vertical component with a handle and two legs, and another component with two additional legs angled away from the patient. This cane provides more broad based support than the other canes. It is used by patients requiring continuous weight bearing through one upper extremity like stroke patients with hemiparesis who have moderate to severe lower extremity disability.


Patient Assessment

There are many factors involved in prescribing the appropriate ambulatory assistive device[9]. The patient’s upper body strength, balance and coordination, overall physical strength and endurance,  level of impairment, cognitive function, vision and living environment must be taken into account.

The patient’s upper body strength should be evaluated to determine whether one or both of the upper extremities would be needed to bear weight or achieve balance.  If only one upper extremity is needed then a cane would be the proper device, while those needing two upper extremities would benefit from a walker or a pair of crutches. Also the degree or amount of the patient’s weight needed to be borne by the device would aid the Physiotherapist in choosing the appropriate device[7].

Gait Analysis

Most people in need of canes have pain or injuries (like in the case of an antalgic gait due to  hip osteoarthritis) that make them avoid weight bearing on the affected side or limb and decrease the stance phase on that limb in an attempt to unload the mechanical stress on the painful hip joint[10]. A cane can increase stability during the single-limb support phase[11].

Therefore, a sound knowledge of the normal gait pattern and cadence is of utmost importance in evaluating and understanding the limitations of the patient with abnormal gait patterns and in prescribing the appropriate ambulatory assistive device[4].

Measuring Canes

In measuring a cane height, the cane is placed approximately 6 inches (15.24cm) from the lateral border of the toes.The patient should be wearing appropriate, comfortable shoes during measurement.

These are the various ways to determine the appropriate cane length:

  1. Elbow Angle: The patient should stand erect and hold the cane with the elbow flexed at 20 to 30 degrees. The angle of elbow flexion is measured using a goniometer. There should be 20 to 30 degrees of elbow flexion in the elbow while holding the cane approximately 15 cm (6“) from the lateral border of the toes[12]. This degree of flexion allows efficient elbow movement while walking with the cane[12], and allows the arm to shorten and lengthen during different phases of the gait cycle, and provides a shock absorption mechanism.
  2. The floor to the greater trochanter[13]: The patient should stand erect and the distance from the floor to the greater trochanter measured to give the length of the cane. That means the top of the cane is at the same level of the greater trochanter when the patient is standing upright with the arms hanging loosely by the side as shown below.
  3. The distal wrist crease to the floor[13]: The patient should stand erect with arms hanging loosely by the side and the distance from the distal wrist crease to the floor measured to get the cane length.
  4. Use a formula: Length of cane = height of the individual (meters) x 0.45 + 0.87 m. (L = H x 0.45 + 0.87 m)[13][14]

Gait Pattern With a Cane

A cane is held in the upper extremity opposite the affected limb. When teaching the patient we should instruct the patient to move the cane and involved lower extremity followed by the unaffected lower extremity. The cane should be relatively close to the body and should not be placed ahead of the toe of involved extremity. When bilateral involvement is there, a clinical decision has to be made as to which side of the body the cane will be held or a bilateral use of cane is necessary or a walker needs to be prescribed.

How to Ambulate With a Cane

Ambulation is defined as the ability to walk from place to place independently with or without assistive device[15]. Many people self-treat and go on to purchase ambulatory assistive devices without any assistance from an appropriate health professional. They choose the improper device for their conditions and have no knowledge on the proper way to use them.

The first thing to know in ambulating with a cane is that the cane must be on the opposite side of the affected leg  and in tandem with it so as to simulate normal gait and to increase balance and aid in weight distribution (canes can easily support up to 25% of a patient’s body weight[9]). This means that if the right leg is the one with the disability then the walking cane would be held in the left hand.

A. From Sitting to Standing[16]

  1. Position the cane on the unaffected side of the patient.
  2.  Advise the patient to move to the edge of the seat, hold the cane handle and bear weight on the unaffected leg and cane to come up to the standing position.
  3. Make sure the height of the cane is appropriate (level of greater trochanter), ensure elbow flexion is 20° to 30° and that the cane is 2” in front of the affected leg and 6” to the side of the affected leg.

B. Walking

Instruct the patient to position the cane on the unaffected side[16].

Three Point Gait

  1. Instruct the patient to balance the body weight on the strong or unaffected limb while moving the cane forward approximately 12-18 inches. Make sure the cane is close to the patient’s body
  2. The patient then moves the weak or affected foot forward.
  3. The patient transfers the weight from the unaffected foot to the affected foot and cane, and then brings the unaffected foot forward to join the affected foot.
  4. Repeat the steps 1 to 3 while shadowing the patient closely and alertly.

Two Point Gait

  1. Instruct the patient to balance body weight on the strong or unaffected foot.
  2. Instruct the patient to move the cane and the weak or affected foot forward in unison (i.e at the same time), keeping the cane close to the body to prevent leaning to the side.
  3. Instruct the patient to transfer their body weight forward to the cane and move the unaffected leg forward.
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 while shadowing the patient closely and alertly.

C. Standing to Sitting[16]

  1. Instruct the patient to approach the chair (or bed), and turn in small circles toward the stronger side till the back is facing the chair or bed.
  2. Assist the patient to back up to the chair until the chair can be felt against the back of the patient’s legs.
  3. Instruct the patient to reach for one arm rest at a time.
  4. The patient lowers to the chair in a controlled manner.

D. Stair climbing

Canes can be used for stair climbing if proper instructions are followed (Up with the good leg, down with the affected one).

Going up the stairs

As usual the cane shall be opposite the affected limb.

  1.       At the bottom of the stairs, instruct the patient to lift the strong or unaffected leg onto the first step.
  2.      Transfer body weight to the unaffected leg on the step while  lifting the cane and the affected leg onto the same step.
  3.       Repeat steps 1 and 2.

Going down the stairs

As usual the cane shall be opposite the affected limb.

  1.       At the top of the stairs, instruct patient to transfer body weight to the strong or unaffected leg while lifting the cane and the affected leg simultaneously to land on the step below it.
  2.       Instruct patient to lift unaffected limb to land on the same step.
  3.       Repeat steps 1 and 2.

Safety tips

Inspect cane on a regular basis. Make sure the cane has a rubber top for shock absorption and grip to prevent slipping. Always check the cane for worn tips and handles Always make sure that cane is at proper height to avoid imbalance and bad postures[9]


Many people have disabilities that require an ambulatory assistive device in order to ambulate independently. Some people are prone to self-treat as canes are easily accessible and do not require a prescription before being purchased. This increases the risks of falls, especially in elderly patients, and risk of musculoskeletal injuries or adaptations due to bad posture gotten from incorrect way of using or holding the assistive devices.

Many of the pharmacies and stores selling these equipment do not have health professionals that are equipped with the knowledge to choose the appropriate device, fit them properly and specifically to the patient. One study has shown that pharmacists do not feel equipped with the knowledge to fit a device for a patient[9].

Therefore, ambulatory assistive devices should be sold where appropriate health professionals can advise the buyers on the proper way to use them. Health professionals like pharmacists can be trained in this area as they also sell such in their pharmacies. This would aid in ensuring that people learn the proper way to ambulate with these assistive devices.


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