Although assistive devices, such as walkers and canes are often prescribed to aid in balance control, recent studies have suggested that such devices may actually increase risk of falling. In this study, we investigated one possible mechanism: the potential for walkers or canes to interfere with, or constrain, lateral movement of the feet and thereby impede execution of compensatory stepping reactions during lateral loss of balance. Lateral stepping reactions were evoked, in 10 healthy young adults (ages 22-27 years), by means of sudden unpredictable medio-lateral support surface translation. Subjects were tested while holding and loading a standard pickup walker or single-tip cane or while using no assistive device (hands free or holding an object). Results supported the hypothesis that using a walker or cane can interfere with compensatory stepping. Collisions between the swing-foot and mobility aid were remarkably frequent when using the walker (60% of stepping reactions) and also occurred in cane trials (11% of stepping reactions). Furthermore, such collisions were associated with a significant reduction (26-37%) in lateral step length. It appeared that subjects were sometimes able to avoid collision by increasing the forward or backward displacement of the swing-foot or by moving the cane; however, attempts to lift the walker out of the way occurred rarely and were usually impeded due to collision between the contralateral walker post and stance foot. The fact that compensatory stepping behavior was altered significantly in such a healthy cohort clearly demonstrates some of the safety limitations inherent to these assistive devices, as currently designed.
Copyright 2003 Elsevier B.V.