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Walking Canes vs Walking Sticks: Is There Really a Difference

After a certain age, or perhaps after a fall or an injury, walking without assistance becomes difficult. Often, elderly people notice that, after walking for a while, they feel a bit weak or insecure. They find themselves needing something to rest on. Looks like it is time to get a walking aid such as a walking cane or a walking stick. But, do you really know the difference between the two? Read on and find out.

The walking cane or stick is the most basic form of a walking aid. But, if you do a bit of research on the different options available, you will soon realize there are a few differences. Despite several similarities, walking canes and walking sticks vary in terms of shapes, features and costs. And, they also offer different benefits from each other.

hiking boots and a walking stick

The Basics of Walking Canes and Walking Sticks

To most people, the words “walking cane” and “walking stick” mean the same thing. In some ways they are right. But, the truth is that there are a subtle differences between the two. Most of these differences are based on their functionality. Canes are designed primarily for support and are generally built to take on more body weight. However, walking sticks are mainly used for maintaining a good balance while walking or hiking.

Some people use these words to mean two different things. Some believe they mean the same thing. But, it is more important that you know there are different types of canes and sticks available on the market. You also need to know which is the right type for you, should you need one.

The Purpose of Using a Cane (or a Stick…)

The cane is the most simplest walking aid and if used correctly, can significantly reduce pain and discomfort faced by elderly or injured people while walking. The main purpose for using any kind of walking aid is to ensure that the injured or the elderly becomes as independent as possible, in the shortest amount of time. A walking cane or a walking stick assists with any one or more of the following functions :

  • Restoring confidence to the elderly person who often feels frustrated when they lose their ability to walk unassisted.
  • Reducing pain in the back, joints, muscles and ligaments by improving body posture and redistributing body weight correctly.
  • Reducing the risk of falls and slips by providing a wider support base, by acting as a third leg and offering better stability.
different walking cane handles

Types of Canes & Sticks Available

Walking canes or sticks come in many types with many different options.  It is easy for a first time user to be completely confused as to which type of walking cane is best suited to his or her needs. It is important to learn as much about them before chosing the best walking cane for your needs.

To make finding the right cane easier for you, I have broken down the different types of canes available by their main features. Consider these features and how they will affect you before you deciding which is best for you and your needs.

The Tip​

The tip at the end of the cane is generally made of rubber and will see the maximum wear and tear over the years. A good tip grips

 the flooring very well and absorb the weight of the user, without losing its own shape. For use on rough terrain, look for tips made from reinforced plastic. The two most popular tips available are :

  • Standard Tip : The most commonly found tip on most canes / sticks, the single tip is perfect for those who only need slight help with balance while walking. It is quire easy to use in most narrow places and even stairs.
  • Quad Cane Tip : The Quad Cane comes with four tips at the end of the cane, allowing it to bear more weight, while offering greater stability than the standard tip. They are usually more expensive and heavier to handle than standard canes, but are worth the extra weight (pardon the pun) for elderly users who have severe joint pain and may need to put more body weight on their cane due to their limited mobility. You can learn more about quad canes in this article.

    Some tips flex and swivel for additional stability, while others use sand and water vents to stabilize the tip, in order to make it easier to walk on sand or gravel.

    Height

    The height of the cane is also a critical aspect of choosing the ideal cane. A cane set at the wrong height can cause accidental falls or result in aches and pains from bad posture. Look for a cane that is adjustable in height. To find the right height for the user, have the user stand straight, and measure the distance from the wrist to the ground, in a straight line. Then set the cane to match that height. Often, women will need a cane that is a little shorter.

    Material

    The most common options are wooden, metal and carbon fiber. Generally, wooden canes are the most affordable, but are more likely to splinter over time and will not last as long. These are good for maintaining balance but not for supporting a lot of weight. Carbon fiber canes are probably the lightest and the sturdiest but are also the most expensive. Metal canes are usually made of aluminum. In most cases, they are the perfect combination of being lightweight, adjustable to fit the user’s height and providing the right support. For canes that need to support the user’s body weight while walking, carbon fiber or metal are the best options. Men usually need heavier duty canes that support more weight.

    Handles

    Normally, the choice of the handle or the grip is based on user preference. People suffering from arthritis or joint pains in their fingers may find choosing a bigger handle easier to use. Some of the most common handle styles are listed below :

    • The round curved handle is commonly found on most walking sticks. But, it is suitable for all seniors because it is uncomfortable to hold for a long time.
    • The knob handle canes look elegant but offer very little support and grip for the elderly. This style is used frequenty with walking sticks that are used more for style or hiking.
    • Palm shaped handles are quite comfortable for the elderly. These handles are wider and designed to fit the space of a closed hand. They basically conform to the natural shape of the hand.
    • Canes with the Derby handles have thick handles with a slight wave that fits the natural shape of the palm. This makes them easier to handle and are a favorite of people with arthritis. The Fritz handle is similar to a Derby but the handle is slightly thinner.
    • The offset handle curves back around to the shaft and more evenly distributes the weight of the user along the length of the cane. This helps reduce strain on the wrists and improves balance.
    • Unique, more custom handles are also an option. Handles that look like animal heads or have intricate metal carvings are available at online specialty cane stores.

      Canes with ergonomic handles are specially designed for prolonged usage, without causing pain or stress on the finger, and joints of the hands. People with carpal tunnel syndrome will find these most useful.

      lady holding a walking stick at sunrise

      Walking Canes vs Walking Sticks: The Differences

      While walking canes and sticks have all of the above in common, there are a few differences to know as well:

      1. Walking canes are more medical in nature and walking sticks more recreational or even fashionable.
      2. Walking canes are more supportive on a full-time basis and walking sticks are used part time to prevent tripping in uneven terrain like hiking.
      3. Walking canes are usually held in the hand to the side of the body but walking sticks are usually held in front of the person using them.
      4. Walking canes are often covered by insurance like Medicare while walking sticks are not.
      5. Walking canes are available with extra features like lights and replaceable handles but walking stick do not have as many extras.

      Summary and Conclusions

      Canes should be considered “a third leg” because they provide the user with additional support. The goal of using any walking aid is increasing independence and improving mobility without compromising safety and stability. One should choose between walking canes vs walking sticks only after determining their specific needs. And with the help of a medical care provider. 

      About the Author Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

      I work daily with seniors and the elderly in my position as a wheelchair specialist at a home medical company. I see the struggle they have maintaining their independence and living their daily lives. Most are completely unaware of the options and products out there that can improve their independence, mobility, and safety in their home. I created this site to help seniors, elders, and their caregivers make smart buying decisions about the many independent living aids on the market.

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