Cane vs. Crutches: What to Use and When?

Who doesn’t want to lead a healthy, happy, and carefree life for as long as they live, right?

Though unfortunately, life is anything but predictable with accidents and the natural aging process escorted by its legion of ailments always lurking in the shadows to catch us off-guard.

It is seldom surprising to come across situations where one might need to rely on the assistance of mobility aids such as crutches or canes in life’s due course. But crutches or cranes? What to use and when? Provided that an uncomfortable situation does come knocking at the door?

If you are also thinking along the same lines, then it’s about time you put your worries to rest as this article is dedicated to dismissing all your apprehensions regarding the use of these two much-debated mobility aids once and for all!  

Mobility Aids 101

Simply put, canes and crutches are movement-facilitative utilities engineered to help people suffering from different forms of motion restraining conditions. These conditions originate from factors such as fractures, broken bones, stressed ligaments, genetic disabilities, or old age-related complications.

Mobility aids thus work to relieve or partly lessen the pain of those undergoing such ailments. It provides a platform to enjoy the freedom of movement independent from burdening friends, relatives, or other people in the process.

This type of device also helps to boost morale and self-confidence. With the fact being especially true for senior people who find it extremely uncomfortable to rely on others for day-to-day walking assistance. 

So, when it comes to these devices, there are numerous options and types available. From wheelchairs to canes, stairlifts, crutches, walkers, knee or mobility scooters, guide or support dogs, etc.

But no matter the alternatives, the point that ultimately leads to the usage of one mobility aid over the other depends on the type of injury and the consequent level of requirements of assistance.

Not to forget, whether temporary use or regular, mobility aids need to be more or less custom-fitted to their users, to maximize the benefits and minimize the risk of complications sometimes associated with them.

Hence it always advisable to consult professional medical personnel before deciding to take up a certain walking aid.

Crutches vs. Canes

As mentioned, there are different types of mobility aids available nowadays to support different types of necessities. But in this article, I won't go on to describe the vice and virtues of all the available options and push you into purchase dilemmas.

Rather I would only focus on the two most popular forms of mobility aids, disclosing their merits and usage convenience, to help you make the wisest decision when it comes to a choice between the two.

Crutches

Crutches are usually generalized as mobility devices specially designed to help people who are temporarily or permanently unable to support their weight on the legs. 

 So there is no real merit in concluding if one gear is better than the other. They both have their demands and functions to fulfill in retrospect of the tasks assigned to them.
Crutche image

In other words, crutches works to elevate the weight of the body from concentrating solely on the legs by transferring the said pressure to the upper part of the body. This helps to maintain and provide the balance required for an individual to move freely without fear of upsetting injuries or provoking relevant problem zones.

Different Types of Crutch

Not all injuries require the same degree of treatment. This is why when it comes to crutches, there exists a suitable number of options to make the user experience as friendly and convenient as possible.

  • Axilla or Underarm Crutch

Axillary crutches are the most common type of mobility aids found in the market. It is used individually or as a pair depending on the extent of the support required. The axillary crutch is controlled by placing it under the arms right against the ribcage. 

Incorporated with "hold-grip", these types of crutches are seen to exhibit an ergonomic structure with the armpit support sufficiently padded to prevent strain-related damage to the hands and chest of the user.

Usage: Generally used for temporary or short-term injury support, axillary crutches are mostly used by patients recovering from surgeries or suffering minor fractures.

  • Spring-Loaded Crutch

Though not a widely popular gear, the spring-loaded crutch is more or less a modified form of axillary crutches. Sporting an open-front design with an ergonomic handle-grip, the padded "armpit support" of the crutch is curved in design, thereby drawing a difference in pattern from the closed-off axillary crutch.

The open design also spells less probability of overuse damages, especially to the chest region. Referring to the name, the crutch further includes a spring at its bottom end, thus offering a little faster movement when compared to an axillary crutch.

Usage: Much like the former, the spring-loaded crutch is also used for short term injuries. But it is a device more preferred by athletic people or young adults. 

  • Forearm or Elbow Crutch

The forearm crutch is more alternatively known as a “Lofstrand” crutch, with the latter name coming from the Canadian brand that manufactures them.

Circle, semi-circle, or V-shaped in design, the plastic or sometimes metal cuff of the crutch provides safe and secure support to the user’s forearm. Thus, they are mostly reliant on lower arm grip-strength. This type of crutches provides little to no threat of straining other body parts such as chest or shoulders.

Usage: Elbow crutches are most apt to be used for long term injury support and lifetime disability issues.

  • Platform Crutch

Structure-wise, a platform crutch is more similar to canes rather than crutches. That being said, these types of crutches are designed with a horizontal plate to support and steady the forearm of the user. 

Velcro or other such straps are incorporated with the support plate to further secure and stabilize the grip strength.

The grasp handle of a platform crutch is also situated at an angle with the horizontal plate. It’s a feature that depending on the user's capabilities provides them more room for experimenting movement-friendly adjustments.

Usage: These are more convenient for senior people who find it hard to maintain a firm grip on their own due to cerebral palsy, arthritis or other ailments.

  • Leg Supports

Conventionally speaking, leg supports are not technically crutches. Yet, they fall under the said category because of their crutch-like functionality.

To explain, crutches are preferred for their ability to transfer the load from the legs to the upper part of the body. Similarly, leg supports, which are a form of custom-made support frames for legs when strapped in place, securely detain the injured lower leg above ground.

In this way, the gravitational force is made to refocus from the ground to the thigh or knee of the user.

Leg supports are completely "hand-free mechanisms" and thus poses no threat of injuries. And because the upper muscles (thigh and knee) of the affected leg are made to work therefore, it provides great prevention against injury-complications such as muscle atrophy.

Usage: Leg supports can only be used on one leg at a time, and unlike other crutches, they are not suitable to treat injuries related to the hip, thigh, pelvis, and even knee regions.  

Canes

The principal purpose of a cane and crutch is the same. That is, both these types of mobility aid are created to remove weight off affected legs while establishing alternately safe balance support to encourage freedom of certain movements.

So how is a cane different from a crutch? The difference lies in the amount and relocation of the said weight transfer. By now, you already know how a crutch works. Hence avoiding repetition, let’s directly delve into the mechanisms of a cane.

A cane is a walking stick roughly of hip-length height. It is not to be confused with the ornamental walking sticks sometimes used or exhibited as fashion statements by certain people or media.

Canes image

That established, a cane usually comes with an ergonomic handle constructed of suitable material to provide the base for a strong and flexibly-firm grip hold. Holding a cane in one hand in effect allows a user to prevent his body weight from concentrating on the injured leg.

Thus, to efficiently move this weight, a cane counterbalances the lower body pressure to the upper part of the body. It does so with most of the transferred pressure focusing on the hand and wrist muscles of the user.

Because canes are heavily reliant on the wrist or arm power of the individual using it, therefore they do not provide the same level of stability or similar amount of load-bearing capacities offered by crutches.

But this is certainly not a negative point. A cane is ultimately made to provide mild to limited but stable balance assistance through decreasing the weight on the injured leg. And it won’t elevate the pressure elsewhere like crutches.

Different Types of Canes

To help better facilitate the movement requirements of the diverse range of users, there exists a suitable number of cane types and choices.

  • Straight Cane

This is the most common type of cane found out there in the market. The ideal height of any standard straight cane is taken from the ground to the length of the wrists, with the understanding that one is in a standing position with the arms left hanging in a relaxed manner to get the measurements correct.

In design, a straight cane is a singular piece of walking-stick with a rubber or quad-tip at the base and an ergonomic grip handle at the top. Depending on the user's strength, the handle of a cane comes in different shapes to provide the firmest grip supports.

For example, shepherd’s crook handle provides ample room for the user to explore the most comfortable grip-point. T-handle or the slightly more curved fritz handle put less pressure on the hands and are ideal for people with arthritis, or generally fragile-weak grips.

Being very comfortable to manage, Fritz handle canes are extremely popular among users.

Usage: Standard canes, in general, are meant for people who are independent walkers but find it difficult to maintain a consistent balance. In other words, canes are useful walking aids for people who are prone to losing their walking balance frequently.

  • Height-Adjustable Canes

These are straight canes that are modified to offer height adjustability options. This means that with an adjustable cane, a user has the superior control to experiment with the device’s height to meet their comfort preferences.

Usage: Best cane for providing firm assistance in sitting down or getting up from chairs, stairs, or raised platforms.

  • Quad Canes

Quad canes are more commonly known as 4-point canes. Parallel in design to that of a straight cane; a quad differs from the former in the base structure. Unlike a regular cane, a quad has four points or tips at its base, which makes it an extremely reliable weight-bearing device.

A quad base is unique in the fact that it provides added stability with a combination of refined balance. This superior equilibrium is made possible due to the uniform distribution of the gravitation force among the four points.  

The base also comes in three different sizes, such as small, medium, and large. The narrower base opts to provide hassle-free movement, while the broader base is offering maximum stability. A quad cane is further accompanied by an offset handle.

Resembling a question mark shape, this type of handle helps to direct the weight of the user through the cane shaft to its tip, and thereby, achieving greater balance with less stress or strain on the wrist. All factors go on to meet the needs of elderly people with complete convenience.

Usage: This is best for people who require increased weight-tolerance support. The cane is also extremely compatible for seniors who have undergone surgery or are recovering from strokes and other such taxing illnesses.  

  • White Canes

White canes are specially constructed tools for individuals who are blind or visually challenged.

These types of canes are generally thinner and longer in structure than traditional canes. It is because a lightweight, long cane makes it easier for the user to detect and determine the shape, size, and distance of objects along their way accurately.

Along with minimizing accident risks, such canes due to their white coloration also acts as an indicator to aware strangers that the person holding the device is visually impaired. Needless to say, such indicators helps both the user and the passerby to assist each other out when required.

Usage: These canes are used by the visually impaired.

Final Words

Canes and crutches should never be considered as an interchangeable option depending on the “mood” or “personal preference” of the user. 

Undoubtedly both devices are made to facilitate user mobility. However, in practice, their applications divert greatly from one another.

Crutches, for instance, functions to "elevate" pressures completely off the injured area, whereas canes work alongside the principle of “decreasing” the weight on an injury.

Hence different types of situations, requirements, or treatment phases would command the necessity of using either mobility aids.  


  • Updated November 11, 2019
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