These Mobility Devices Change Everything

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Eighty percent of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) have trouble walking within 10 to 15 years of disease onset, according to the National MS Society. And while there are numerous walking devices on the market that can help you stay mobile, the outdated and unfounded stigma attached to them often holds people back from taking the plunge. From classic to cutting-edge, today’s options keep you mobile and independent. Learn why these devices could be the MS game-changer you need.

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Walking Devices Keep You Safe

The top reason to use a mobility device? Safety. Because MS symptoms like weakness, imbalance, and spasticity can make walking a struggle, the risk of falls increases; in fact, about half of middle-aged and older people with MS experience at least one fall over a half-year period. “Injuries due to falls can be devastating because during the time of recovery, physical decompensation can occur that may prove difficult to come back from,” explains Jacqueline F. Rosenthal, M.D., a neurologist at the Andrew C. Carlos Multiple Sclerosis Institute in Atlanta, GA.

Walking Devices Save Precious Energy

Whether you’re going for a stroll or maneuvering through a restaurant, the right walking device will help you move around with less energy. And energy is like gold when you have MS, with fatigue affecting 80% of people with the condition, says the National MS Society. “When motor impairment is present, it takes more energy to get from point A to point B,” says Dr. Rosenthal. “By providing assistance with mobility, patients are better able to get around without fatiguing as early.” Keep reading to learn about your walking device options.

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Make a Statement With a Walking Stick

Walking sticks and canes may not seem flashy, but they are a tried-and-true way to move around more easily with MS. Look for one with a rubber stopper on the bottom so it doesn’t slide when you put weight on it, and make sure it’s the proper height, says Kathy Zackowski, Ph.D., an occupational therapist and neuroscientist who serves as senior director of Patient Management, Care and Rehabilitation Research for the National MS Society. “As a rule, the top of the cane should reach to where your jeans pocket would be, so your hand can hold the cane with a little bit of bend in the elbow.”

Middle aged woman walking with trekking poles in city park
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Take a Hike With Trekking Poles

Trekking poles ($20 to $200)—yep, the same kind you might see on hiking trails—can be used anywhere you need more support than a regular cane can provide, as you carry one in each hand. We recommend adding a pair of rubber tips to prevent them from slipping and keep you stable during indoor use. If you’re feeling uncomfortable with the idea of using a cane, trekking poles could be a great choice—the association with hiking and exercise makes some people feel this option is less stigmatizing, says Zackowski.

people wearing race gear using Afari
Courtesy of vendor

Go Cutting-Edge With an Afari or Alinker

For people with MS who want to get outside and move but struggle with balance issues, a special piece of exercise equipment like the Afari ($1,875) can help. The Afari uses three large bicycle wheels so it can easily go over diverse terrain. Another unique option is the Alinker ($1,977), which is a non-motorized three-wheeled walking bike developed in Canada for people who have mobility challenges. There aren’t any pedals, so you propel yourself by walking forward from a seated position.

young man walking with forearm crutches
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Get a Lift With Forearm Crutches

For a bit more support, crutches are another option—but traditional ones can hurt the underarms. Enter the more comfortable forearm crutches ($25-$280). “These have a handle that will grip your forearm so you can let go of the top without it falling to the floor,” explains Zackowski. This gives you more freedom to move your hands around. Again, it’s super important that these are fitted to your height, or else it could hurt your shoulders, she warns. A doctor, physical therapist, or occupational therapist can help ensure the perfect fit.

young man standing in living room using walker
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Lean on a Walker

Walkers ($30 to $430) are especially helpful if you have issues with balance or gait. The benefit of a walker or rollator (a walker with wheels) versus a cane is that they provide support for both hands, improving stability, says Zackowski. And with wheeled options, you don’t have to pick it up each time you take a step. Another point in the “pro” column for this option is that many rollators have a seat built in. “You can lock the wheels and use it as a place to take a rest, which is great if you run out of energy before you reach your destination and need a break.”

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The Wheelchair Option

Wheelchairs ($100 to $4,000) can help you stay mobile from a seated position and come in manual and motorized versions. This is a good option if you’re not able to walk independently without fatigue or fear of falling. “Some people even like walking with a manual wheelchair in front of them instead of a walker,” says Zackowski. “You can use it kind of like a grocery cart to put stuff in as well. It’s a clunkier option, but it’s not going to fall over and will keep you stable.”

Alinker and Afari
Courtesy of Jackie Zimmerman

Mix and Match for Your Needs

The device you use depends on your activities and changing symptoms. For example, those with relapsing-remitting MS may only need their device when in a relapse, says Zackowski. “It is best to be evaluated by a physical therapist who can complete a full assessment and then make recommendations,” says Dr. Rosenthal. Finally, Zackowski recommends using your device to shows off your personality, whether it’s your favorite color or dressed up with jewels. Remember: This tool isn’t a death sentence, it’s your key to continuing to live a full life.

man crossing street using rollator
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Walking Devices Mean More Freedom

For many MSers, a walking device could be a game-changer. “Walking equates to independence in many ways for people with MS,” says Zackowski. “Think about your walking device as a tool to keep doing what you’re doing without being so tired or worried about falling.” Plus, the more people are willing to try these tools, the quicker the stigma will fade, she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I can’t believe it took me so long to use a cane or walker, but it’s so helpful.’”

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.