Choosing and Using Walkers in Physical Therapy

Occasionally after illness, injury, or surgery, you may have difficulty walking or moving around. Weakness, balance difficulty, or surgical weight-bearing restrictions may require that you walk with assistance or with a device to ensure safety.

One such device that can help you walk safely and independently is a walker. There are many different types of walkers to choose from. The two main types of walkers are a standard walker and a wheeled walker.

Photo of a woman with a walker working with a physical therapist
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Standard Walker

The standard walker is typically an aluminum frame with four adjustable legs that contact the floor. There are small handgrips on the top to hold onto the walker. The legs help provide extra support while you are walking. There are also rubber caps on each leg to help grip the floor and prevent the walker from slipping.

An advantage of using a standard walker is that it provides a great amount of stability to help prevent loss of balance and falls. One disadvantage is that you must use your arms to lift and advance the walker while walking. If your arms are weak, this may present a problem. The lifting and advancing of the walker can become tiresome. Also, a standard walker is difficult to use on stairs, and often you will need another person to help carry the device up and down stairs.

A standard walker usually has a folding mechanism that allows the walker to be folded flat for easy transport in a car or on public transportation.

Wheeled Walker

A wheeled walker is usually an aluminum framed walker with two wheels on the front legs. This allows the walker to be pushed along the floor while walking and eliminates the need to lift the walker to advance it.

An advantage of a wheeled walker is that it allows you to walk with greater speed. One disadvantage is that it is less stable than a standard walker and can easily be pushed away from you while walking. Like the standard walker, the wheeled walker is usually foldable for easy storage and transport. It is also not safe to use a wheeled walker to walk up and down stairs.

When Should You Use a Walker to Walk?

If you have surgery on your hip, knee, or ankle, you may not be allowed to put your full weight on your foot to walk. You may be required to keep the operated foot off the floor. A walker will help provide stability and support and allow you to maintain weight-bearing restrictions while walking.

After illness or injury that requires an extended period of bed rest and recuperation, you may have weakness in one or both legs. Your balance can also be affected after a period of bed rest. A walker may be necessary to help provide the support you need to get walking again.

How Do I Use a Walker?

Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider and physical therapist to make sure that you are using the correct walker and to learn how to use it properly.

Before using a walker, you must make sure it is the correct height for you. To check the height of the walker, stand up inside the frame and allow your arms to hang down. If your balance and strength are limited, be sure to do this with someone nearby to help you. The handgrips of the walker should be at the level of your wrists. If they are not, sit down and use the small push buttons to adjust the four legs of the walker to the correct height.

Walking with a standard walker can be difficult as you will need to lift the walker and advance it while walking. This easy, step-by-step guide can help you safely walk with a standard walker. Make sure you do not stand too close to the front crossbar of the walker. Also, make sure all four feet contact the floor at the same time to avoid tipping the walker over.

Walking with a wheeled walker is a simpler task. To walk with a wheeled walker, stand inside the walker and push it forward while walking. Try to avoid standing too close to the front of the walker. Also, do not let the wheeled walker get too far in front of you while walking.

How Do You Know When You Don't Need the Walker?

As your strength and balance improve after injury or illness, you may not need to walk with a walker anymore. Crutches, a quad cane or a standard cane may be better suited for you. You must speak with your healthcare provider and physical therapist to decide which device is best for your specific condition. Here are some of the other options.

  • Axillary crutches: Axillary crutches are crutches that extend up to your armpits. Crutches provide less stability than a standard or wheeled walker. Axillary crutches can also pinch the armpits, so be sure your crutches are fitted properly.
  • Lofstrand or Canadian crutches: These crutches, also called forearm crutches, have a small cuff on the top near the handle that allows the crutches to be secured to the forearms, and they allow you to use your arms while using the crutches. They take practice to use and provide less stability than other devices, such as a walker or axillary crutches.
  • Quad Cane: A quad cane is a cane with four small prongs that extend out from a metal base on the bottom of the cane. These prongs make contact with the floor and help to provide a wide base of support for the cane.
  • Standard Cane: A standard cane, or straight cane, is a single walking stick with a curved handle to hold on to. Some standard canes are adjustable, and others are wooden and need to be cut to the right size before use. A standard cane can be used when you need extra support or balance, but it provides less support than crutches or a walker.

A Word From Verywell

Walkers provide you with a great amount of stability and safety when properly used. By working with your healthcare provider, physical therapist, or healthcare provider, you can be sure to use the correct device properly to ensure the safest level of functional mobility and independence.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Shin E, Jeon B, Song B, Baek M, Roh H. Analysis of walker-aided walking by the healthy elderly with a walker pocket of different weights attached at different locationsJ Phys Ther Sci. 2015;27(11):3369–3371. doi:10.1589/jpts.27.3369

  3. Lopes S, Filipe L, Silva R, et al. An innovative concept for a walker with a self-locking mechanism using a single mechanical approachInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(10):1671. doi:10.3390/ijerph16101671

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By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.