Selecting a Cane for Multiple Sclerosis

When It's Time and What Your Options Are

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Using a cane is one of the ways to cope with the decreased mobility of multiple sclerosis (MS). You might want to use a cane just intermittently to help with balance, such as when you are taking a walk along a rugged path, or you may want to use a cane almost all the time if one of your legs is substantially weaker than the other.

Aside from the practical aspects of deciding whether you need a cane and how to safely use it, you may experience some apprehension about it. Thinking through any ambivalence might be a big part of your decision. If you decide to proceed with getting a cane, you will have a new tool at your fingertips to help you maximize your capabilities once you select the right type and fit for you.

How to Pick the Right Cane for Multiple Sclerosis
Verywell / Cindy Chung

Deciding If You Need a Cane

If your MS is limiting your ability to get around and do the things you like to do, a mobility device can assist you in staying active. A cane is the least complicated type of mobility device, providing you with just a touch of balance and support to help you get around.

You can talk with your healthcare provider or therapist as you consider whether you could benefit from using a cane, but ultimately the decision is up to you.

Some questions to consider when deciding whether a cane would be beneficial for you include:

  • Do you hold onto furniture, countertops, or the wall when walking in a flat area?
  • Do you feel tentative or afraid when descending or ascending stairs?
  • Is your hip, joint, or knee pain worsening?
  • Does pain limit your walking speed, 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?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you might want to try a cane in a physical therapy setting. You can learn how to use it safely and get an idea of whether it improves your mobility.

If you feel more stable and balanced with a cane, it is probably the right option for you.

As you are deciding whether you should get a cane, what you don’t want to do is wait until you have an accident. Be honest with yourself and carefully weigh the benefits and the shortcomings of a cane.

Emotional Concerns About Using a Cane

Using a cane can feel like a major change in your life. You may have a number of emotional concerns, and it is important that you acknowledge these issues.

Common Concerns

Some concerns that may cause you to avoid a cane even if you need one include:

  • Feeling self-conscious, embarrassed, or less competent in front of others
  • A sense that a cane represents losing your freedom
  • Fear that a cane means that your condition is declining
  • Associating a cane with being old
  • Concern that relying on a cane will weaken your muscles

While these types of concerns are understandable, a cane is meant to help you function better. And using a cane does not mean that you will not get better. Many forms of MS are characterized by remissions, so getting through a decline in your mobility now does not mean that your mobility won’t improve in the future.

Consider talking about your feelings, whether with a trusted friend or loved one, your healthcare provider, your physical therapist, in a support group, or with a licensed mental health professional. Talking it out can help you sort out your misgivings and put them into perspective.

Remember, too, that while you may find certain aspects of using a cane undesirable, doing so might make opportunities that are currently difficult or out of reach (like going on more outings with family) real possibilities. That can have tremendous value in terms of your overall outlook on your life with MS.

Finding the Right Cane

You can get advice from your physical therapist about the specifications you should look for in a cane. While you can pick out a cane on your own, it’s helpful to get fitted for one by asking for some assistance in the store. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and to try a few different types and sizes.

  • Identify the purpose of the cane: If you need a cane to provide you with 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, which has four rubber feet. Some people will even choose to have both at home and use one or the other based on the situation.
  • 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, straining your back, or losing balance.
  • Consider the grip: The angle of the grip is also important. If it is angled too far up or down, it might strain your wrist. The handle should also fit nicely in your hand and have a comfortable grip. While an engraved silver grip will certainly look nice, a non-slip rubber or polystyrene grip may be more comfortable and prevent accidental slips.
  • 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 be functional but also fit with your personal style.
  • Work with a physical therapist: After you get your own cane, make sure you have at least one session with your 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 MS symptoms you’re experiencing, you may need to move the cane in unison with the affected leg or the opposite leg.

A Word From Verywell

Living with MS has its challenges. Getting past your limitations is often possible, but it requires some deliberate lifestyle changes. A mobility device, like a cane, can give you the extra boost you need to get around. The emotional process of getting to that decision can be tough, but once you have a cane, you can gain freedom, which can be empowering.

By Julie Stachowiak, PhD
Julie Stachowiak, PhD, is the author of the Multiple Sclerosis Manifesto, the winner of the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award, Health Category.