How to Use Crutches Properly - 5 Tips to Avoid Common Mistakes

I live with spina bifida and have walked with crutches since I was three, so I know firsthand how tricky it can be. There are lots of things you can do wrong, many of which can put you in a world of hurt.

Here are 5 tips on how to use crutches properly and avoid common mistakes people make when walking on crutches. Follow this advice to stay comfortable and avoid injuries while walking on crutches.

Use Forearm Crutches Instead of Underarm Crutches

I covered the advantages of forearm crutches vs. underarm crutches in a previous post, but they’re so important that it's worth reiterating.

I didn’t always appreciate these advantages, and stubbornly used underarm crutches for most of my life, even when people told me I should switch to forearm. In my defense, underarm crutches do have a few upsides of their own. The biggest one is that they don’t require as much shoulder and forearm stability, which makes it easier to stabilize yourself, particularly when going up and down stairs.

However, that doesn’t make up for everything that forearm crutches bring to the table. Most importantly, they eliminate pressure on your underarms, which can lead to nerve damage. I was very careful not to lean with my underarms on my underarm crutches – most of the time. However, I did cheat occasionally, and in some cases using my underarm crutches that way was unavoidable. I was lucky not to cause any damage.

Forearm crutches have other advantages too. For example, they’re shorter and thus easier to store, lighter, and seem like more of an extension of your arms.

There’s definitely a learning curve, especially if you’ve been using underarm crutches for a long time. When I first switched to forearm crutches, I hated having them attached to my arms with the arm cuffs. I was also a bit unstable until my forearm and wrist muscles got used to the increased workload.

Now, I’d never go back. If you’ve been using underarm crutches, talk to your medical provider about switching. It might be one of the best medical decisions you ever made.

Hold Your Crutches at the Correct Angle

Keep your arms tucked close to your body so the force is more or less straight up and down.

When you walk with crutches, it’s important to protect your shoulders at all costs. Shoulder joints are a marvel of engineering, but they’re also prone to injury and definitely weren’t designed to be walked on year after year.

One of the easiest ways to hurt your shoulders is to hold your crutches at an extended, awkward angle away from your body when you walk. This puts an exponential amount of stress on your shoulder joints.

Keeping your arms tucked close to your body can be hard to do in some cases, like when you have to extend one of your crutches to take a step. Exercising your upper body regularly (as discussed below) will go a long way toward stabilizing your shoulders in situations like that.

Take Care of Your Hands and Wrists

It may seem obvious that you need to protect your hands and wrists if you walk with crutches. However, this can be easier said than done.

The reality is that if you walk for a long distance, your hands are going to hurt. That said, they can recover fairly quickly. I know that if I go on a long hike, it takes just a few hours of rest before the soreness fades. I don’t go for another long walk until the pain is totally gone.

If you seriously hurt your hands or wrists, however, all bets are off. Here are some tips to avoid that:

  • Use lotion to prevent cracking, especially if you have calluses, and especially in the winter.
  • Wear gloves when going for long or even moderate walks. I’m partial to fingerless bike gloves unless it’s really cold.
  • Keep your wrists lined up with your hands as much as possible when you’re walking. Avoid bending your wrists outward, as this can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome.
  • Speaking of which, if you type a lot for your job like I do, properly set up and use an ergonomic keyboard and office chair. Carpal tunnel is bad for anyone, but it’s downright debilitating if you walk with crutches.
  • Examine your hands regularly, including calluses if you have them. If anything looks like it might be a problem, such as blood under a callus, see your doctor.
  • Use cushioned, shock-absorbing hand grips. I’m partial to these.

Be Careful on Slippery Surfaces

Nothing’s worse than the feeling of your crutch suddenly skidding out from under you because you didn’t see a wet spot.

All wet surfaces can be slippery, but some are worse than others. Wooden walkways, painted portions of crosswalks, tile and marble floors, wet rocks, and cobblestone streets are just a few that you want to tread especially carefully on after a rain or when a floor has just been cleaned.

Recently my wife and I got our kitchen remodeled, and we installed tile floors. Why? The laminate floors we had before were almost like ice when they got wet, which happens often in a kitchen. I wiped out more times than I care to remember, and a few tumbles could have been serious. For example, once I hit my head on the refrigerator and cranked my neck back, giving me whiplash for a few days.

But ever since we got textured tile floors – which I carefully tested for crutch slippage before we installed them – I haven’t fallen once. Lesson learned.

Keep Your Upper Body Strong and Flexible

A proper exercise program is essential, not just for recreation and overall health, but for walking safely on crutches year after year. Shoulder exercises – both strengthening and stretching – are especially important. Strong, flexible shoulders are much more resilient and resistant to injury than weak, inflexible ones.

Don’t forget your chest, core, and arms, too. All of these need to be strong if you want to keep walking as you age. I’m 52, and I hope to be walking on crutches until I’m at least 70. For that reason, I do strength training exercises three times a week.

It goes without saying that you should always talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program. Check out my blog, Thrive With Paralysis, for more tips on staying in shape.

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