How to Safely Walk With a Cane

Learning how to walk with a cane can take a little getting used to. If you have an ankle, foot, knee, hip, or leg injury or condition that makes walking difficult, a cane can help you maintain mobility and move about safely.

Canes are used to assist with balance, widen your base of support, and/or decrease weight-bearing pressure on your dysfunctional knee, hip, or leg.

The first thing to know about walking with a cane is to hold the cane in the hand opposite your bad leg. A physical therapist can help you find the appropriate cane, ensure it's the right height, and teach you to use it properly.

This article discusses how to walk with a cane. It explains reasons why you may need a cane, different types of canes, and how to know if your cane is the right height for you. It also provides tips for going up and down stairs with a cane and other useful tips.

Three senior men laughing, walking on city waterfront
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When Do You Need a Cane?

Canes are often used for temporary injuries but are sometimes needed on a long-term basis. Conditions that may warrant the use of a cane include:

Any condition that prevents safe functional mobility may mean that you need to consider the use of a cane for walking.

A standard cane is generally appropriate for people with mild sensory, coordination, or balance problems. Those with moderate to severe problems may need to consider other devices such as crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair.

Sometimes, a cane is only needed temporarily, until sufficient healing has occurred or your strength and balance have recovered as a result of rehabilitation.

Walking With a Cane

Using a cane is a little more tricky than some people expect. Using a cane for mobility requires coordination to take as much pressure off the affected limb and/or ensure that you can recover if you are unsteady or suddenly begin to lose your balance.

To walk properly with a cane:

  1. Hold the cane on the side of your body as your unaffected (stronger) leg.
  2. Position the cane slightly to your side and a few inches forward.
  3. Move the cane forward simultaneously with your affected (weaker) leg.
  4. Plant the cane firmly on the ground before stepping forward with the stronger leg.
  5. Repeat.

It is important to take your time when first starting out. Rushing only causes you to lose coordination or make mistakes.

Avoid taking big steps as this can cause your body to tilt forward on the weaker leg and compensate on the stronger leg by tilting back. The back-and-forth motion (along with the wide stance) can cause you to lose balance and fall.

Navigating Stairs

Stairs can be particularly tricky if you are new to using canes. Clearly, it is easier to navigate stairs if there is a handrail, but not all staircases have one. Proper technique and patients will help you get up and down stairs no matter the situation.

Going Up Stairs With a Cane

When walking upstairs with a cane:

  1. Start with your cane and both feet on the same step.
  2. Holding the cane firmly for balance, lift your strong leg to the next step.
  3. When your foot is firmly planted, follow with your weaker leg. Bring your weaker leg to the same step as your strong leg.
  4. When both feet are firmly planted, lift your cane back to your side.
  5. Repeat until you reach the top of the stairs.

Going Down Stairs With a Cane

When walking downstairs with a cane:

  1. Start with your cane and both feet on the same step.
  2. Holding the cane firmly for balance, lower your weaker leg to the next step.
  3. Bring your strong leg down to the same step as the weaker leg.
  4. When both feet are firmly planted, lower your cane back to your side.
  5. Repeat until you reach the bottom of the stairs.

Choosing the Right Cane

If faced with significant mobility issues, it is advised that you meet with an orthopedist and/or physical therapist to determine the appropriate device for your condition.

In some cases, a single-footed (single-point) cane may be all that you need. For people with more significant mobility/problems or who are at greater risk of injury from a fall, a four-footed (quad) cane may be more appropriate.

There are several different types of canes, and the right one for you will depend on the degree of support you need. Common types of canes include:

  • A C cane is a basic walking cane in the classic candy-cane shape. It provides light support, but may not be suitable for people who need more support. 
  • A functional grip cane is similar to the C cane, but with a straight handle perpendicular to the main shaft, which makes it easier to grip than a C cane. It provides better support than a C cane, but not as much support as a quad cane. 
  • An offset handle cane is a design improvement on the functional grip cane. It ensures the user’s weight is distributed more evenly, resulting in better stability than a functional grip or C cane. 
  • A quad cane has four tips at the bottom that form a rectangular base allowing it to stand on its own. It also typically has an offset handle, can handle more weight, and offers more support and stability than a single-tip cane. 

The Anatomy of a Cane

The parts of a cane include:

  • Handle: The part of the cane that you hold onto. This can be curved, straight, or offset.
  • Shaft: The straight part or body of the cane.
  • Ferrules: The part of the cane that comes in contact with the ground. Rubber ferrules provide a better grip to prevent a cane from slipping from under you.

How to Find the Right Cane Height

To ensure your cane is at the right height, hang your arm down with your elbow straight. The crease of your wrist should fall at the level of the top of the cane. If it doesn't, adjust your cane up or down until it does.

When holding your cane, your elbow should be bent at about a 20- to 30-degree angle, and you should not feel any pain or discomfort in your shoulder or arm.

Mistakes to Avoid

There are some common mistakes people make when walking with a cane. If you are new to using a cane, take a few minutes to review the "do's and don'ts" of using a cane.

  • Do not use a cane that is either too high or too low.

  • Do not hold the cane in the wrong hand

  • Do not place the cane too far from your body when stepping.

  • Do not rush.

  • Adjust the cane so your elbow remains bent at 20 to 30 degrees.

  • Place the cane in the hand opposite to your affected leg.

  • Place the cane nearer to you and take smaller steps.

  • Take your time to avoid overstepping and tripping.

A Word From Verywell

Learning how to use a cane properly is essential to maintaining your balance while walking and preventing falls. It can also speed your healing if you are recovering from an injury or surgery.

If you find that a cane isn't enough to ensure maximum safety, balance, and coordination, don't be embarrassed to ask for a walker or crutches until you're in a better position to manage a single cane.

8 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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By Laura Inverarity, DO
 Laura Inverarity, PT, DO, is a current board-certified anesthesiologist and former physical therapist.