When to Get a Cane for Multiple Sclerosis

Knowing When It's Time and What Your Options Are

Senior woman and daughter holding walking stick
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If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you may be advised to use a cane depending on your level of disability. This can cause emotional distress in some as it may be interpreted with a worsening of the disease or the manifestation of a condition you'd rather keep concealed.

Or it could even be more basic that, representing a loss of freedom that may later extend to your driving and ability to take care of yourself.

How to Decide If You Need a Cane

While these types of concerns are understandable, try not to get ahead of yourself. In the end, MS has no definite course. Depending on numerous factors, including how well you take care of yourself, the disease may or may not progress. 

At this stage, it is more important to determine whether the lack of a mobility device is keeping you from activities you might other pursue. Or, conversely, whether having a cane will keep you from activities out of embarrassment or self-consciousness?

While there is no right or wrong answer for this, you need to do more than just identify your concerns. You need to decide which fears are real or which are not. To do this, try to forget about feelings for the moment and focus solely on the issue of mobility. Start by asking yourself:

  • Do you hold onto furniture or countertops when walking through a room?
  • Do you feel tentative or afraid when approaching stairs or when descending or ascending stairs)?
  • Is your hip, joint, or knee pain worsening?
  • Does the pain limit the speed you walk, where you walk, or how far you walk?
  • Do you have any trouble with balance or stability?
  • Are you going out less due to mobility problems or pain?
  • Do you avoid walking in crowds because you might trip or be pushed over?
  • Have you ever been afraid of crossing the street?
  • Have other people suggested you get a cane?

Based on your answers, it's up to you to decide whether you can manage without a cane or if you need to consider one, either now or in the near future.

If You Decide to Hold Off

If you do decide to hold off, you should set specific criteria to tell you when, if ever, you need to get a cane. It may be that you know it's time when you can no longer make it up a favorite walking path or miss an event (like church or a social activity) that you routinely attend.

Or it may be that you'd rather wait and see if symptoms of an MS relapse improve after treatment or if a course of physical rehab might actually improve your mobility.

What you don't want to do is wait until you have an accident. Set some ground rules now and try to be honest with yourself, focusing as much on the benefits of a mobility device as its perceived shortcoming.

5 Tips for Finding the Right Cane

If you decide it's time to get a cane, there are some general tips you should follow to find the one that addresses both your physical and emotional needs:

  1. Make sure the cane is properly sized. As a general rule of thumb, the top of the cane should line up with the crease in your wrist when your arm is hanging straight. If it's too long, it may be hard to maneuver around things and won't give much support. If it's too short, you may end up leaning over and losing balance.
  2. Identify the purpose of the cane. If you need a cane to provide you balance on uneven ground, you will probably only need a single-tipped cane. But if you need it to bear weight when you walk or navigate surfaces, then you most likely opt for a quad cane with four rubber feet. Some people will even choose both to fit the specific situation.
  3. Consider the grip. The angle of the grip is also important. If it is too acute, it might hyperextend the wrist and cause strain. The handle should also fit nicely in the hand and have a comfortable grip. While an engraved silver grip will certainly look dapper, a non-slip rubber or polystyrene one may be more comfortable and prevent accidental slips.
  1. Work with a physical therapist. Make sure you have at least one session with a physical therapist to ensure you are using your cane correctly. A trained therapist can show you how to use your cane for maximum efficiency without expending unneeded effort or strain. Using a cane is not always intuitive. Depending on what types of symptom you're experiencing, you may need to move the cane in unison with the affected leg or the opposite leg.
  2. Pick the cane you like. You don’t need to pop into a medical supply store and grab the first cane you see. There are a lot of different styles and colors that can meld function with your personal style statement. Having the right cane can change your attitude about mobility devices and allow you more freedom whatever the stage of your disability.
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