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Walkers for Seniors With Arthritis: Choosing Comfort and Support

Walkers are assistive devices that are meant to offer stability and support for individuals who have difficulty with walking. There are several types of walkers available on the market; however, when it comes to arthritis, some options are better than others depending on the arthritis type and area affected. This article will address the challenges of the different types of arthritis for mobility, various walker features that can benefit seniors with arthritis, and provide a guide to selecting the most suitable walker.

Types of arthritis

Arthritis is generally defined as swelling and inflammation of joints with associated pain and stiffness affecting joint tissues and connective surrounding tissues throughout the body.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are five different types of arthritis that encompass hundreds of variations of joint conditions with associated with pain. These types include osteoarthritis (OA), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), gout, fibromyalgia, and juvenile arthritis. All forms of arthritis can negatively affect mobility, but the first four will be discussed in relation to seniors.

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD). OA can affect any joint, but the most common will be the knees, hips, and hands. This arthritis can occur based on age, overuse, obesity, genetics, and trauma.

  1. Mobility is most affected when the lower extremities, such as the knees or hips, are involved.
  2. OA in these major joints will distort upright posture and change a natural gait pattern to ease pain of the affected joints.
  3. When the lower extremity is involved, overall balance and safety become compromised, and walking without a device can lead to an increased risk of falls.
  4. OA can also affect numerous joints throughout the body, and it is not uncommon for several areas to be painful simultaneously, such as the knees and hands.
  5. Walker recommendation: standard walker, wheeled walkers (2, 3, and 4 wheels), upright walker, knee walker
Walker recommendation for Osteoarthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation mainly in the joints of the hands, wrists, and knees. This type of arthritis is based on your genetic makeup and has to be diagnosed through blood tests. RA is usually associated with deformity of the hands; however, it is not exclusive to RA, as osteoarthritis can also cause joint deformities.

  1. Mobility is most affected by joint deformity and pain in the knees.
  2. RA is common in the hands and wrists, so the ability to use a walker needs to be considered. Certain handles and grips can cause strain on the hands, and any weight-bearing through the arms should be evaluated to avoid worsened pain and discomfort.
  3. Like OA, RA can also affect many joints at once, and flare-ups can exacerbate a senior's ability to walk.
  4. Walker recommendation: wheeled walkers (though a lever brake system, typically found on three and four-wheeled models, should be avoided), upright walker
Walker recommendation for Rheumatoid arthritis

Gout

Gout is a form of inflammation caused by hyperuricemia where the body produces too much uric acid. Uric crystals build up in the tissues and joints and flare up typically affecting one joint at a time. The big toe is a commonly affected area, but gout can affect any joint throughout the body. Gout is painful during flare-ups, but depending on management, it can yo-yo between no symptoms and excruciating pain.

  1. Mobility is most affected during flare-ups.
  2. Both the occurrence and the affected area of flare-ups are unpredictable.
  3. When considering the type of walker, it's important to evaluate how gout affects the senior most often and look for features to assist with specific symptoms frequently experienced (e.g., foot pain or arm pain).
  4. Walker recommendation: standard walker, wheeled walkers (2, 3, and 4 wheels), knee walker
Walker recommendation for Gout

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is widespread pain throughout the body that also causes sleep disturbances, emotional distress, and fatigue. This type of arthritis is often associated with autoimmune disorders such as Lupus and even RA. While fibromyalgia can be managed with effective pain management strategies, flare-ups can lead to debilitating pain, just like with other forms of arthritis.

  1. When it comes to mobility with fibromyalgia, the pain typically affects the entire body.
  2. This can affect a senior's overall endurance/balance, necessitating a device that offers the most support.
  3. Fibromyalgia can be treated by a medical specialist to reduce overall pain; however, if medication is used daily, such as nerve blockers, it's important to consider the effects of both pain and medication.
  4. Walker recommendation: standard walker, wheeled walkers (2, 3, and 4 wheels), knee walkers
Walker recommendation for Fibromyalgia

Benefits of walkers for seniors with arthritis

The main goal of using walkers is to enhance an individual's ability to walk safely. Seniors benefit largely from using walkers because they give back quality of life, independence, and enhanced safety when used correctly.

When it comes to arthritis, walkers can assist with alleviating some pain during walking and offloading weight through other extremities interchangeably. With advanced arthritis, a senior may already experience noticeable changes in their joints, which could also reduce their range of motion such as a knee's ability to bend and straighten for a natural gait pattern.

Walkers will then increase a senior's base of support for limited motion and improve overall safety reducing their fall risk. Another added benefit of walker use with arthritis is the senior's overall confidence in being able to walk as needed.

Choosing the right walker

Before selecting the right walker, knowing the type of arthritis and how it affects your body is the first starting point. The ultimate best practice is to consult with your primary care physician and/or physical or occupational therapist to make the final decision. The list below will be variables to consider based on your specific conditions.

  • Lightweight design to maneuver and lift. Non-wheeled walkers can be very lightweight and offer the most stability but need to be picked up with each step.
  • Ergonomic handles. This includes if there is a braking system that requires grip strength. For someone suffering from arthritis in their hands, a brake system with a pull lever would not be recommended as it causes undue strain on already fragile joints.
  • Adjustable height. It is not advisable to lean on walkers and bear weight through the arms unless using an upright walker. It is crucial to have your walker properly fitted to your correct height as poor posture can contribute to more pain at the back and hip joints.
  • Walkers with wheels. There are several options for wheel configurations, and this should be evaluated based on several factors. These factors include the senior's ability to walk at certain speeds (4 and 3-wheeled walkers tend to be faster), the braking system, the ability to fold if needed for traveling in a car, the size of the walker, and a lightweight versus heavier duty option.
  • Walkers with a seat. There are fixed seats and folding options available, and if standing for long durations is painful, then a seat would be a great addition.
  • Weight restrictions. Walkers have weight restrictions that should be checked. Bariatric walkers are available, and the weight limits will be on the manufacturer's information for every model including ones that have a seat.

Tips for comfort and safety

Some additional safety and comfort tips to maximize the use of your walker include:

  1. Wear proper shoes. Comfortable sneakers are best, avoid slip-on sandals as they can get caught and have poor traction.
  2. Be familiar with your walker. Take the time to learn how it works and its features to increase safety and the intended use of the model you have.
  3. Avoid uneven terrain. Use ramps when available and try to stay on hard surfaces.
  4. Have a medical professional fit your walker to you once you get it.
  5. Manage your arthritis with your doctor. Don't substitute the walker as treatment and neglect the proper management plan established with your doctor.

With all of the information available for walkers, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. There are so many different factors to consider when purchasing a walker. Medicare may cover the expense; however, typically a medical diagnosis is required as well as a proper evaluation performed by a physical/occupational therapist or assistive device professional.

When purchasing a walker outright, seniors should never feel alone. Consult your primary care doctor first to discuss concerns about your arthritis condition and its impact on your ability to walk. Therapists are specifically trained to evaluate which type of walker will best fit your needs, ensuring safety and comfort.

Selecting the wrong walker can be life-altering if a fall were to occur, so properly fitting and selecting a walker is vital to be able to experience all the benefits it can offer.

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