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Walkers: Take steps to enjoy this great mobility tool

Work with a physical therapist to learn how to use a walker to best advantage so you can take back your independence.

Walkers can put you back in action if you’re recovering from an injury or surgery, or if you’re struggling with balance and gait problems, fatigue, or muscle weakness. “Walkers help give people their independence back. They improve daily function, and they reduce the risk of falling,” says Dr. Clare Safran-Norton, a physical therapist and clinical supervisor of rehabilitation services at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Getting started

You should never attempt to use a walker without a formal physical therapy evaluation for gait, balance, and strength, as well as the proper training to use the device. “For most people, it takes a few physical therapy sessions,” says Dr. Safran-Norton.

Therapy starts with learning how to transfer from a sitting to a standing position, and then how to lower yourself down to a sitting position again. “This is important if you’re on the couch or in the bathroom. It’s the first step in training,” says Dr. Safran-Norton.

Taking your first steps

Moving with a walker requires coordination. The key is practice. “You move the walker forward first, and then you step, so the walker is always in front of you,” explains Dr. Safran-Norton. You might repeat a set of verbal cues, such as “walker, one, two,” or “walker, left, right.”

Once you can walk with the device, you’ll have to learn how to navigate different surfaces, such as carpeting, tile floors, sidewalks, and grass.

A physical therapist can train you for indoor challenges in a therapy center. You can also get training in your own home or yard if your doctor prescribes home health care visits from a physical therapist.

Becoming a pro

You’ll need to know how to use all of the features of the equipment, such as which buttons to push so that the walker folds. That will be important if you want to put the walker in a car. You’ll also have to know how to reopen thewalker and lock its position so it won’t collapse. Make sure you understand how to use brakes if your walker has them.

You may also need to make some adjustments to the equipment. Walkers come with rubber feet that might not glide on carpeting. “Add some
tennis balls to the bottom of the front legs, or buy a pair of tiny skis for the front legs of the walker,” advises Dr. Safran-Norton. You can get these from a medical supply store. And remember, you can’t use a walker on stairs. “For that, you’ll need training to learn how to use a stable handrail and a cane,” says Dr. Safran-Norton. 

Today’s walkers: Go simple or go feature-rich

All walkers are adjustable and come in different sizes. You probably remember lightweight aluminum walkers with rubber feet. Now, however, you can buy a walker with wheels intended for different terrain, lockable brakes, seats, baskets, and other features. How do you know which is right for you? “The walker should match the person and the environment where it’s going to be used,” says Dr. Clare Safran-Norton, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Consider the following:

Brake styles.

There are two types of brakes. Hand brakes are triggered by squeezing, so they require hand strength. If you have arthritis or muscle weakness, you may want brakes that are triggered by leaning down on the walker. Get brakes on
walkers with wheels if you can’t control the walker and you have trouble stopping.

Wheels vs. rubber feet.

Walkers with two wheels in front are easier to push forward, but should be used only when “someone has good balance, strength, and a steady gait,” says Dr. Safran-Norton. Walkers with four wheels—called rollators —can be used by someone who can walk quickly and has good control of stopping and starting. A standard walker has four legs and rubber feet, no wheels. This provides maximum stability and safety for someone who is unsteady.

Accessories.

Most rollators have seats built into them. That’s handy if you get tired and want to sit. For all walkers, you can add baskets, trays, armrests, cup holders, pouches, padded grips, and even safety lights.

Durability.

Walkers are made of aluminum tubing—the thicker the tubing, the stronger the walker. Indoor walkers have lightweight tubes, with smaller wheels; outdoor walkers have thicker, heavier tubes, with bigger wheels. You can find outdoor walkers with large all-terrain tires, good for use on grass, and even walkers with wheels made for rolling along sand.

Image: Thinkstock

Posted by: Dr.Health

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