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Choosing and Using Walkers in Physical Therapy

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Updated September 02, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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.

Types of Walkers

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 I 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 doctor 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 size 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 I Know When I 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 doctor and physical therapist to decide which device is best for your specific condition.

Walkers provide you with a great amount of stability and safety when properly used. By working with your doctor, 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.

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