Is it time to reinvent the walking cane?
by Jeff Stoner & Paula Heikell

It’s hard to imagine a simpler, yet more powerful medical device than the walking cane. Every day, millions of people rely on this basic walking “stick” to help them maintain mobile, independent lives. In fact, the cane has been around for so long and is used by so many people, that it has become almost invisible to the casual observer. Nonetheless, it is a lifeline for countless people who could not move through their day without it.

The History of Canes

Walking sticks and canes have been used for centuries. The first walking cane was probably the limb of a tree. In early times, shepherds and travelers used the walking stick as a working tool and protective weapon to ward off trouble. In the Middle Ages, monarchs used it as a scepter or symbol of power. In 17th century Europe, men used the cane to replace their swords as part of their daily attire, and it became a popular fashion accessory for centuries.

Walking canes eventually fell out of fashion, but by then, they were solidly established as an effective medical or assistive aid to help patients recover from injuries and maintain mobility. Medical cane sales continue to grow every year, with millions being purchased in the U.S. on an annual basis.

Canes Today

A cane is made up of four parts: the handle that is used to hold the cane; the collar, a band or disk that attaches the handle to the shaft; the shaft, which is the straight part of the cane; and the ferrule, which is the pointed end of the cane.

The original basic cane, which included a wooden shafted cane with a simple handle and single-point ferrule, has undergone much revision over the years. Equipment manufacturers now offer canes made of wood, metal and plastic materials, as well as a wide array of handgrips and ferrules to better accommodate patients’ specific needs. Rubber-tipped ferrules are used to increase traction. Broad-based canes with a tripod or quadruped base are available to provide patients with more stability. Convenience options, including a combination folding cane and seat, and canes with built-in lights, are also available.

What's to Come

To date, most improvements in cane design have focused on the four components of the cane, but the overall design of the cane has not changed significantly. It is still basically a straight shaft with a handle and a base. However, while many patients use a cane for assistance, the support it can deliver is
limited. Cane walking puts the patient in an off-balance position, which can be risky for those with stability issues. It also makes it difficult for patients with leg injuries to effectively offload the weight of the leg onto the cane.

According to Mark Froemke, director of physical therapy at Twin Cities Orthopedics, “Assistive devices are utilized by many patients in order to increase their ability to function with improved stability and decreased fall risk. Historically, a variety of different types of canes have been utilized in order to attempt to perform this task. If the device does not safely allow a patient to offset the amount of weight-bearing needed from the weaker or painful limb without improving overall stability, then it is not serving its purpose correctly.”

Now, cane design is getting a fresh look that is promising to revolutionize the way we think about canes. For the past 12 months, Jeff Weber, chief product designer at Mobi, a firm that specializes in assisted mobility devices, has been studying the overall mechanics of cane walking, envisioning a next-generation cane designed to mimic the way the human body walks.

“We’ve broken cane walking down to its most basic elements,” Weber says. “What we found is that the process of taking a step and leaning forward on the cane for support is an inherently unstable movement. It requires people to draw on their upper body strength while they are leaning forward and out of balance, so they can’t draw as much strength as they need.”

Such forward movement can also increase the risk of falling, a serious concern for caregivers. Weber is striving to design a cane that eliminates this risk. He and his team have developed several prototypes that have lead to breakthrough thinking in cane design.

“We see a better cane out there that allows people to stop leaning forward, stay centered and use their upper body strength more naturally,” he says. “Ultimately, it should help the user move so naturally that they almost forget about it. Comfort is the absence of awareness. If we can achieve this for the user, we know we’ve succeeded.”

Senior Care Products, Winter 2011