Walk This Way! Find Your Next MS Stability Gear Hereby Rachel Zohn Health Writer
According to the National MS Society, 80% of people with MS have trouble walking within 10 to 15 years of disease onset. Yet many hold off on using mobility devices for as long as possible, perhaps, because there is a stigma attached to going down that road, suggests Dave Bexfield, of Albuquerque, NM, who runs the organization ActiveMSers and was diagnosed with MS in 2006. “Stubbornness plays a massive role in all of this,” Bexfield says. “My biggest piece of advice is that we need to get over ourselves because odds are we’re going to fall if we don’t use an appropriate device.” Mic drop.
So, What's an Appropriate Walking Device?
In short, it’s one that makes the things you need to do—from going for a stroll to maneuvering through a restaurant—a non-issue. “These devices can be used like tools to help make life easier,” says Kathy Zackowski, Ph.D., an occupational therapist and scientist who serves as senior director of Patient Management, Care and Rehabilitation Research for the National MS Society. “You can choose when to use them based on when you need them.” Click through to see options—from classic (and cool) canes to cutting-edge walker hybrids—and learn how people are walking it out their way.
Make a Fashion Statement With a Walking Stick or Cane
Walking sticks and canes ($15 to $80) have been keeping people on their toes for ages. For optimal balance, the top of your cane should line up with the crease in your wrist, says Zackowski. And if you need your cane to bear more weight, grab one with a quad tip.
Insider take: “I must have 20 different canes that I use for different occasions," says Travis Gleason who lives in Ireland and Seattle, and who has secondary progressive MS. “My favorite is a hazel-wood one that was handmade in Scotland. I got it from a good haberdasher. You don’t have to go to a medical company to buy this stuff.”
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. When you purchase a set (you carry one in each hand), we recommend adding a pair of rubber tips. The tips help prevent slipping and protect flooring from the hard metal tips when the poles are used indoors.
Insider take: “I’ve used them indoors and outdoors, for going on walks and going to the mall,” Bexfield says. “And from trekking poles, you can transition more easily to forearm crutches.” Make sure you use the wrist straps properly, as this provides an additional support and offsets a lot of weight, Bexfield explains.
Get a Lift With Forearm Crutches
Forearm crutches ($25 to $280) are designed to bear your weight on your forearms. They give you more support than a cane or even trekking poles. Some people find them more comfortable than axillary crutches, which bear your weight under your arms. Forearm crutches also allow you to be more mobile than traditional walkers (see the next slide).
Insider take: “With forearm crutches, I became a mountain goat,” Bexfield says. “I could walk five times farther.” As with all mobility devices, the key is to use proper form (i.e. make sure the cuffs are two to three inches below your elbows), he notes. Your doctor or nurse can help you get a perfect fit.
Lean on a Walker
Walkers ($30 to $380) are especially helpful if you have issues with balance or gait. They provide more stability than either canes or crutches and may come with wheels. To use a walker without wheels, you pick it up with each step; it requires a little coordination but it's more stable since it can’t roll away. You can push a wheeled walker, but you’ll need to use the hand break to ensure it stays put.
Insider take: “I have a simple walking frame that I use around the house, usually if I’m having a particularly bad day,” Gleason says. “Using it keeps me from doing a wall-walking thing.”
Have a Seat (Whenever You Want) With a Rollator
Rollators ($80-$430) tend to have larger wheels than standard walkers, along with a seat bench, basket, and handbrake. A rollator can be good for someone who has more mobility and strength, but may need to sit down occasionally or have a place to stow things. But be aware that larger wheels means it can get away from you easier, Zackowski says.
Insider take: “If I’m using mine to stand while cooking and I’m getting tired, I can just flip it around and sit down,” Bexfield says. But it’s also tempting scootch around on a rollator while seated, and this is a big no-no and can lead to accidents, he notes.
Squeeze in Some Exercise With an Afari
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.
Insider take: For Max Michaud, of Winslow, ME, who has been living with multiple sclerosis since 1974, the Afari has helped her regain mobility when walkers and other devices didn’t work. Michaud says her balance problems make it hard to use a walker. But with the Afari, she has been able to walk in a 10K race.
Ride-Walk (Really!) With an Alinker
Also known as a walking bike, the Alinker ($1,977) is another an example of a specialty device that some people use instead of a traditional mobility device. The Alinker 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.
Insider take: Bexfield reviewed the Alinker on his website, ActiveMSers.org and described the device as being easy to assemble, solidly designed, and a fun ride that lets you move quickily and easily. However, it doesn’t replace a traditional walker or other assistive aid, Bexfield says.
Mix and Match for Your Needs
Often people with MS will need multiple devices depending on daily activities or planned outings and how you’re feeling that day. It’s important to think through what you’ll need and how each device will function in different circumstances.
Insider take: The more people are willing to give these tools a try, the quicker unfounded or outdated perceptions will be torn down, Zackowski explains. “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.”