Top 5 Tips for Buying Crutches

Crutches are crutches, right?

Not even close.

If you walk on crutches most of the time like me, or even if you split your time more evenly between crutches and a wheelchair, it’s critical to choose the right pair. Great crutches can make all the difference between walking injury free with relative ease, and constantly dealing with sore hands, falls, and broken or worn-out equipment.

I’m 52 and have walked on crutches since I was 3 (although in recent years, I’ve been switching to a wheelchair if I know I’m going to walk a lot on a given day.) Here are my top tips for buying the best crutches for you.

Underarm or Forearm?

As most of you know, underarm (aka axillary) crutches are just what they sound like: crutches that sit close to your armpits. Forearm crutches are shorter and have cuffs that wrap around your forearms.

Which is best? It comes down to personal preference. I used underarm crutches for most of my life, primarily because they’re inherently more stable and don’t require as much arm strength, as your back and shoulders take some of the weight.

Then, a few years ago someone persuaded me to try forearm crutches. I bought a pair of custom titanium LiteStix from Thomas Fetterman and never looked back. They’re lighter, shorter, more portable, more maneuverable, and generally more ergonomic than any underarm crutches – and most other forearm crutches, for that matter.

It did take a couple of months to strengthen my wrists and forearms enough so my new titanium beauties didn’t wobble when I walked. Plus, having them dangle from my arms when I reached for something took some adjustment. But now I wouldn’t use anything else, and they’ve facilitated many adventures.

Note: If you choose underarm crutches, DO NOT lean on them with your armpits. Doing this not only makes you less stable, but it can also damage your shoulder joints and the nerves and blood vessels under your arms.

Pick the Right Material

I’ve owned crutches made of wood, aluminum, titanium, and carbon fiber. The main benefit of wood is that it’s cheap. But it’s also heavy and can splinter.

I still have my first pair of wooden crutches. One of them has a crack that my father repaired with zip ties. I have no idea how I broke them at that age. I also remember a time in fifth grade recess when I was playing goalie and tried to block a shot with one of my crutches. I missed the ball, smacked a brick wall next to me, and heard a splintering sound. This was, to put it mildly,  inconvenient.

Original Crutches

I’ve tried aluminum crutches as well, but they too can break. Ask me how I know.

As I mentioned above, I now prefer Fettermans’ custom titanium forearm crutches. I’ve tried  carbon fiber, but even though it’s a bit lighter, it’s also brittle and doesn’t absorb shock.

Titanium flexes and does absorb shock, which helps preserve my shoulders. And they’re essentially impossible to break with anything like normal use; at most, they would bend under a huge amount of force.

If you’re a full-time crutch user, I would spend the money for titanium or carbon fiber. Those materials are far and away the best available for crutches.

Make Sure They Fit Correctly

If your crutches don’t fit right, they won’t work well and could even cause injury. For those of you who are full-time or substantial part-time crutch users, I strongly recommend getting a custom pair that’s made and measured to fit you.

If that’s out of your price range, there are steps you can take to ensure any pair of crutches fits as well as possible.

According to Washington University Orthopedics, to fit adjustable underarm crutches:

  1. Stand tall with your shoes on. Make sure your shoes have low heels and good support.
  2. Put the crutches under your arms.
  3. Relax your arms and let them hang down over the crutches. There should be a two-inch space between your armpit and the top of the crutch with your hands hanging relaxed.
  4. The hand grips should be at the level of your wrist when holding the hand grips.
  5. Your elbows should be bent slightly to about thirty degrees.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to maintain that gap between the top of the crutch and your armpit. As I mentioned above, if you don’t, it can cause serious health problems.

To fit adjustable forearm crutches that aren’t custom made by a professional, the cuff height should be about 2 inches from your elbow. Then adjust the handgrip height so it’s about at your wrist and your forearm is slightly bent when you’re holding it.

Save Your Hands

Walking on crutches can be brutal on your hands. Wearing gloves can help; I favor fingerless mountain biking gloves with padded palms.

But the best way to minimize soreness is to get the right type of hand grips. Forget the cheap foam grips that come with standard crutches. They’re padding is pathetic, plus they wear out after only a few months of daily use.

Instead, get grips that will last a long time and cushion your hands properly. Fetterman sells a variety of them, some of which I like and some of which are just meh. I love his Performance Hand Grips, which have a gel pad for cushioning that serves double duty as a shock absorber. Some others, like the Right Grips, are too hard or otherwise don’t work for me.

Try several grips and see what works for you. Good grips are spendy, but worth it. To keep walking on crutches, you have to protect your hands at all costs.

Don’t Forget the Tips

In many ways, crutch tips are like car tires; they may seem insignificant, but they’re crucial for performance.

As with grips, most of the tips you find in drug stores are garbage. They’re small, so they don’t have enough surface area to provide a secure grip. They’re made of flimsy materials, so they’ll wear out before you know it. And they don’t flex, so if you hold your crutches at an angle, part of the tip won’t even contact the ground.

The good news is that Fetterman has solved all of these problems. His crutch tips are the best I’ve found by far, because:

  • The larger size has a larger surface area for a better grip.
  • Both the small and large sizes flex and maintain full contact with the ground nearly regardless of crutch angle.
  • Built-in shock-absorbing gel reduces the hammering on your shoulders when you walk.
  • Premium, long lasting materials offset the higher price.

I’ve used these crutch tips for years, and honestly I can’t imagine using anything else. They’ve enabled me to walk in all sorts of conditions without falling, including over wet rocks, up slippery stairs, etc.

No crutch tips are slip proof, of course. But I fall a LOT less with these than I would using standard crutch tips.

If you don’t buy Fetterman’s tips, buy some that are similar. Your shoulders will thank you, as will the rest of your body when you don’t fall as much.

So that’s my advice. Hopefully you’ll find them useful the next time you go shopping for a pair of crutches, grips, or tips. And don’t forget to check out my blog, Thrive With Paralysis, for dozens of articles on health, recreation, relationships and life skills, and disability news, science, and technology.


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