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Walking Canes and Walking Sticks: Navigating the Differences

Walking Canes and Walking Sticks: Navigating the Differences

Walking canes tend to be more medical in nature with handles that are more supportive. Walking sticks are usually more recreational and used on a part-time basis. Here's how to choose.
Walking Canes And Walking Sticks
Walking Canes And Walking Sticks
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Walking can become difficult as you get older or after an injury, and you may feel unsteady on your feet. You’ll likely need a walking aid like a cane or walking stick for extra support and balance.

This raises many questions – what are the differences, which is right for me, and how do I use them properly?

I can provide the answers after 20 years in the medical equipment industry.

  • Canes are designed for full-time support and stability with features like adjustable height, supportive handles, and lights. They are held at your side and bear weight.
  • Walking sticks are for occasional balance assistance, like when hiking over uneven ground. They have fewer features, are held in front, and don’t bear full weight.

The key is choosing the right one for your needs and getting the proper fit and hand positioning to prevent falls. I’ll explain how to do this correctly based on factors like your height, health issues, and budget.

My goal is to help you walk safely and securely so you can stay active and independent. You don’t need to feel self-conscious – using a cane or walking stick is smart self-care.

Comparing Walking Canes and Walking Sticks

FeatureWalking CanesWalking Sticks
PurposeMedical support used dailyRecreational balance help
Weight BearingDesigned to bear user's weightDo not bear weight
MaterialsMetal, carbon fiberWood, aluminum
UsageUsed daily, held at sideUsed occasionally, held in front
FeaturesMore accessories like lightsMore basic
CostMay be covered by insuranceOut-of-pocket
Orthopedic SupportBetter for robust assistanceBasic stability help
Custom FittingOften fitted by medical proSelf-adjusted
GripVariety of orthopedic gripsBasic wrist strap or handle

The Basics of Walking Canes and Walking Sticks

The words “walking cane” and “walking stick” mean the same to most people.

In some ways, they are right. But, the truth is that there are 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 which is why they are sometimes called hiking or trekking poles.

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 different types of canes and sticks are 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 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 walking aid is to ensure that the injured or the elderly become 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 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, acting as a third leg, and offering better stability.
types of canes and sticksPin

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 best suits his or her needs.

It is important to learn as much about them as possible before choosing the best walking cane for your needs.

I have broken down the different types of canes available by their main features to make finding the right cane easier. Consider these features and how they will affect you before you decide 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 absorbs the user’s weight, without losing its 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 quite easy to use in most narrow places and even on 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 with severe joint pain who may need to put more body weight on their cane due to limited mobility. You can learn more about quad canes and stability here.

Some tips flex and swivel for additional stability, while others use sand and water vents to stabilize the tip, making walking easier on sand or gravel.

Height

The cane’s height is also a critical aspect of choosing the ideal cane. A cane set at the wrong height can cause accidental falls, 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.

Carbon fiber or metal are the best options for canes that need to support the user’s body weight while walking. Men usually need heavier duty canes that support more weight.

cane handlesPin

Handles

Normally, the handle or grip choice 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 not suitable for all seniors because holding it for a long time is uncomfortable.
  • The knob handle canes look elegant but offer little support and grip for the elderly. This style is used frequently 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 is a favorite of people with arthritis. The Fritz handle is similar to a Derby but slightly thinner.
  • The offset handle curves back around to the shaft and more evenly distributes the user’s weight along the cane’s length. 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 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.

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, and walking sticks are more recreational or 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 have extra features like lights and replaceable handles, but walking sticks do not have as many extras.

Infographic: Walking Canes vs. Walking Sticks

Walking Canes vs. Walking Sticks infographicPin
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Summary and Conclusions

Canes should be considered “a third leg” because they provide the user additional support. Using any walking aid aims to increase independence and improve mobility without compromising safety and stability.

One should choose between walking canes and sticks only after determining their specific needs with the help of a medical care provider.

Are there other differences between walking canes and walking sticks that you would like to point out? Share them in the comments below!

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Scott Grant, CSA®, SHSS®

Scott Grant, CSA®, SHSS®

With over 20 years of experience and certifications as a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)® and Senior Home Safety Specialist (SHSS)®, Scott Grant provides reliable recommendations to help seniors maintain independence through informed product and service choices for safe, comfortable living.

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12 thoughts on “Walking Canes and Walking Sticks: Navigating the Differences”

  1. Joyce Sinquefield

    Thanks!

    • Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

      You are very welcome Joyce!

  2. Rick Taylor

    I have been using a cane for two years and find I am walking more bent over than I would prefer and have been considering a walking stick (more like a ski pole). My question is, will I have the same stability with a pole that I have with a cane? I think the fact that standing and walking upright have advantages by aiding posture. I hate being hunched over a cane.

    • Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

      Hello Rick – I don’t think you will have the same stability with a walking stick compared to a cane. One other thing jumps out at me: you shouldn’t be bent over much at all with a cane if it is properly sized. The cane handle should be at the level of your wrist with a slight bend in your elbow. If this isn’t the case, it may need adjusted. Most canes have little push pins at the bottom that you can use to adjust the height. If you need help with this, ask a therapist or doctor you have worked with. A local home medical equipment company may be able to help you with this too. If you are above average height (6’0″ +), you may need to get a taller cane. Hope this helps you out.

    • I have used sticks for years. I have a vestibular problem (dizzy, off balance) and canes made me feel like I was going to topple over and I found like you, that I became hunched over. My walking sticks are 60″ tall (I am 5’8″) and I find they give me much more support than a cane ever did. They are much more useful too for going up and down stairs and if, for instance you need to step down a big step. The main reason I use them is for stability, and I found a stick much better. You also don’t have to get down the tripod rhythm of walking cane to opposite leg or however that is suppose to go, just swing it naturally and walk more naturally and more upright. I would go for a stick over a cane anyday. I find hand carved wood ones and get comments on them all the time.

      • Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

        Hey Jen!

        Thanks for adding your real world experience to the discussion! –Scott

  3. “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.”
    suitable because uncomfortable? Please explain.
    Thank you.

    • Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

      Thanks for pointing out the typo – I want to make sure I am always giving out correct information. The sentence has been corrected. The curved handles are NOT the best choice of cane handle for most seniors. They are hard and not properly curved to match the natural curve of a hand. So, they are uncomfortable for many seniors. I hope this helps.

  4. Barbara Ramirez

    I have drop foot and a walking stick helps perfectly, except people just think I am cosplaying.

  5. sarah faulks

    Great information. Confirmed my thought on the cane my husband uses. He leans into it and is bending over much more. Going to do as you suggest and have him adjust his other cane which is adjustable and has a better hand form. I am asking about the walking stick, as my feet are my problem. Painful from arracnoiditis. What I feel I need when I am out for a brisk walk is just a balance crutch as I walk along and go to the left or right favoring my feet. Not a lot but feel I may benefit from a stick. Thanks

  6. Dewain Belgard

    I have occasional problems with balance and also with arthritic pain in my left knee. I have tried both cane-style stick and taller walking-style sticks. I adjust the cane to wrist high (using the 20 degree angle rule for the lower arm at the elbow). I adjust the walking stick using the right angle rule for the arm bent at the elbow. I find the walking stick easier to use and less tiring. It provides more stability and keeps me more upright than the cane. I’ve found you can get the same grips and materials for either style of walking aid. The major difference is in the height of the stick and the angle at which the arm is bent. The taller stick and the right angle bend wins hands down for me. The one disadvantage of the taller stick is that people seem to notice it more in places like the supermarket or the doctor’s office. That makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I will use the cane in very public places like that simply because people don’t give it a second look. Maybe that would change if more elderly people like me tried the taller walking sticks and started using them more.

  7. Arlene B.

    I have bouts of vertigo (BPPV) and dizziness, for which I find walking sticks or trekking poles advantageous. I do not know if a single cane would provide the stability that two walking sticks provide. I would agree with the post above, however, that the poles are more “obvious” and garner more of a reaction when in public.

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