How to Safely Walk With a Cane

If you are having difficulty with walking and problems with functional mobility, you may benefit from using a cane when you walk. Your physical therapist can help you set up with the appropriate can and teach you to use it properly. By using a cane, you can maintain safety and efficiency when walking and moving about.

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.

Three senior men laughing, walking on city waterfront
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There are may conditions in which the use of a cane may be recommended. These 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, the use of a cane is permanent; at other times, the use of a cane may be temporary, until sufficient healing has occurred or your strength and balance have recovered as a result of rehabilitation.

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 are at greater risk of injury from a fall, a four-footed (quad) cane may be more appropriate.

If a cane is deemed appropriate, you will need to have it adjusted to the proper height so that your body is in a neutral position when grasping the handle. If it is too high or too low, your body will be placed in a tilted position, not only causing discomfort and rapid fatigue but increasing the risk of a fall.

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.

How to Use a Cane

Using a cane is a little more tricky than some people expected. Unlike using a cane for trekking, 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 tiling 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 them. Proper technique and patients will help you get up and down stairs no matter the situation.

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.

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.

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.

7 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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  3. Luz C, Bush T, Shen X. Do canes or walkers make any difference? Non-use and fall injuries. Gerontologist. 2017;57(2):211-218. doi:10.1093/geront/gnv096

  4. Avelino PR, Nascimento LR, Menezes KKP, Scianni AA, Ada L, Teixeira-Salmela LF. Effect of the provision of a cane on walking and social participation in individuals with stroke: protocol for a randomized trial. Braz J Phys Ther. 2018 Mar-Apr;22(2):168-73. doi:10.1016/j.bjpt.2017.11.002

  5. Camara CTP, de Freitas FSMS, Lima CA, Amorim CF, Prado-Rico JM, Perracini MR. The walking cane length influences the postural sway of community-dwelling older women. Physiother Res Int. 2020 Jan;25(1):e1804. doi:10.1002/pri.1804

  6. OrthoInfo/American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons. How to use crutches, canes, and walkers.

  7. Arthritis Foundation. How to safely climb stairs.

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