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Am Fam Physician. 2011 Aug 15;84(4):405-11.

Geriatric assistive devices.

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  • 1Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, New York 10029, USA.


Disability and mobility problems increase with age. Assistive devices such as canes, crutches, and walkers can be used to increase a patient's base of support, improve balance, and increase activity and independence, but they are not without significant musculoskeletal and metabolic demands. Most patients with assistive devices have never been instructed on the proper use and often have devices that are inappropriate, damaged, or are of the incorrect height. Selection of a suitable device depends on the patient's strength, endurance, balance, cognitive function, and environmental demands. Canes can help redistribute weight from a lower extremity that is weak or painful, improve stability by increasing the base of support, and provide tactile information about the ground to improve balance. Crutches are useful for patients who need to use their arms for weight bearing and propulsion and not just for balance. Walkers improve stability in those with lower extremity weakness or poor balance and facilitate improved mobility by increasing the patient's base of support and supporting the patient's weight. Walkers require greater attentional demands than canes and make using stairs difficult. The top of a cane or walker should be the same height as the wrist crease when the patient is standing upright with arms relaxed at his or her sides. A cane should be held contralateral to a weak or painful lower extremity and advanced simultaneously with the contralateral leg. Clinicians should routinely evaluate their patients' assistive devices to ensure proper height, fit, and maintenance, and also counsel patients on correct use of the device.

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