September 30

Using A Cane When You Are Chronically Ill

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I won’t sugar coat it – using a cane when you’re chronically ill is tough. Sure, you might run into some physical challenges, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s tough because it’s a huge psychological adjustment, and people around you may not make it easier. So, if you’re struggling with the thought of using a cane – it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Read on to understand what I mean.  

You need to consider four things if you’re using a cane to manage a chronic illness:

  • It changes people’s behaviour and attitude towards you. 
  • You're accepting that you need help with mobility – not admitting defeat.
  • There are a few tips and tricks you can use make the experience easier. 
  • None of this makes you a weak person.

Before I go any further, you must know that there is nothing wrong with using a cane. It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge when you need help, and that should be embraced. From this point, it’s just about making sure you’re in the right state of mind so you can tackle what comes next.

Using a Cane Changes People’s Behaviour Towards You

When I started using a cane, I felt a sigh of relief in my head. I thought that the transition from crutch to cane would mean people would stop asking me what was wrong in public, especially since canes are rarely used if you just have an injury. Boy, was I wrong.

If anything – it sparked even more questions. Most of them were about why a non-geriatric, seemingly healthy woman needed a cane?

But the questions didn’t stop there. Here are a few things to expect:

Inappropriate, rude and invasive questions about your health

Most people rarely seem to think twice before asking questions or making statements about your health. Often it’s not their fault – they can’t understand what you’re going through.

But sometimes, it’s because they’re carelessly insensitive, and you need to know how to respond!

On two separate occasions, I was asked (by total strangers, I may add) how long I had to live! What? That’s NEVER appropriate to ask a random girl with a cane.

I was very close to saying, “longer than you”, before beating them to death with the stick itself. But of course, why would I damage a perfectly good assisted-walking device!

As much as I hate confrontation – I needed to tell these individuals that this question hurt me. There’s no need to be rude if you don’t want to be.

Simply telling them that although you understand their intrigue, you feel uncomfortable and hurt by the question is more than enough to get them to rethink their actions seriously.

These interactions inspired one of my most useful articles EVER! If you want some help, read this: 100 Ways to Answer The Question: “How Are You?”

A great deal of pity – especially in the way they look at you

These are interactions you’re probably no stranger to already. If you have any assistive medical device in public, chances are that someone will look at you a little funny or stare.

Honestly, there is very little that onlookers can do other than convey sympathy through pity. They intend to help, but the attention just makes us feel more self-conscious than before.

Unfortunately, you can’t stop others from feeling pity, but you can manage your response.

So, when you feel surrounded by pitiful eyes – it’s time to zone out and become hyper-aware of your own mind.

Get your daily mantra going, positive affirmations, or even repeat your shopping list in your head. Focus on anything that will help YOU accomplish one more thing that day without getting demotivated.  

The perception that you’re weak

Don’t get me wrong – if I’m struggling to carry a bunch of shopping bags while using a cane, then I am always pleasantly surprised when a passer-by offers to help me.


But there is a fine line between being considerate to someone with a disability and making us feel entirely useless or weak.

Just because we have a chronic illness doesn’t mean we are unable to do anything for ourselves. We may need some help here and there – but we also want to hold on to anything we can do independently. It’s vital for our mental health.

If you feel a family member or friend is leaving you with little control over your own life – remind them that you are a fighter!

You are a crazy strong chronic illness warrior, and you want every challenge and opportunity to keep your autonomy.

I know it may be a delicate subject with your loved ones right now. If so, you need to read this and pass it on to them ASAP: How Do You Care for Someone With a Chronic Illness?

The belief that you are a liar or being overdramatic

Where some people are overly attentive to our needs and others believe we’re not weak at all – we’re just faking it for attention!  

These people are usually the ones to deny what we tell them and say things like, “It’s all in your head,” or “You must be enjoying poor health.”

This often happens if you only need to use a cane periodically – depending on your health. It’s difficult for the average person to see how a cane may be necessary on one day and useless the nest.

Your family and close friends may also question if you really need a cane – they might be resistant to it at first. In all honesty – they may just be struggling to accept your new needs.

Handling all these people (and their opinions) with grace can be a challenge, especially when you’re struggling just to get through your day.

But remember that it is your life, and if a cane makes it easier for you to live that life, then it is nobody else’s business. That’s why the way YOU see yourself is most important – which is what we’ll look at next.

You're Accepting That You Need Help with Mobility

using-a-cane-with-chronic-illness

Here's me (Marina) with my bright gold cane nicknamed the "pimp stick" on the beach.

If you’ve been reluctant to use a cane – I understand. I know that it can feel like defeat in the beginning. It can dampen your pride and dignity to use a walking aid, especially when you think back on what your body was capable of before.

But, working with your body’s dynamic needs is not defeat – with the right mind frame, it can show that you are dynamic and resilient.  

I need to emphasise that your state of mind makes a difference here.

With all the thoughts, insecurities and concerns rushing through your head – here are a few things to remember that you are NOT:

You are not a victim of life.

Don’t get me wrong – using a crutch can suck! It can feel awkward, disheartening and it’s frustrating to always have something extra to think about.

It’s okay to feel these things and get upset. Your emotions are valid and if you feel like crying about using a crutch right now, then do it!

Once you’ve let your emotions out, remember that there is a bigger picture to focus on:

Feeling defeated by life when you use a crutch can easily lead you into believing you are a victim of your circumstances.

But, perceiving your crutch as something that enables your body’s function when necessary helps you see it as a helpful tool that promotes independence.

The benefit to believing the latter is that it also stops you from creating a dependence on your crutch that extends beyond what you need it for physically.

You are not a fraud.

Using a cane today doesn’t mean you will always need to use one. It isn’t necessarily a permanent change, and that doesn’t invalidate what you’re feeling right now.

When you’re part of the chronic illness community, everyone knows that some days are better than others. You experience many ups and downs, so it’s only normal that you might not always need a walking aid.   

Over time, the people you love will see this too.

If anything, knowing when to put your crutch away because you feel strong enough to walk is commendable.

If you’re feeling twisted for words when someone approaches you and wants to know if you’re magically healed – I’ve been there too!

You’re not superhuman.

As human beings, we have a habit of comparing each other in the most illogical and unreasonable ways.

But I can confidently say that, like most aspects of your life, focus your attention inward when it comes to your chronic illness.

None of us is the same. Our conditions can manifest in so many different ways, and comparing someone else’s needs to yours will never end well.

  • Don’t convince yourself that you don’t need to use a cane because you’ve met someone who is in worse condition than you; and
  • Don’t assess your mobility while using a cane against someone else’s movements.
If you have to check in with someone – check in with yourself. Consider your needs based on how you feel. Be proud of yourself for making whatever decision you felt was right for that day.

When you need more help – consider the humility it took to admit that.

When you don’t need help – consider the courage it took to test the waters first.

These are all points that are much easier said than done. And I know the underlying question faced with each one: “Okay, but how do I do or change this?”

I can’t get into it in this article (for fear of writing a never-ending thesis), but I can highly recommend checking out our free 7-Day Programme.

This programme was made specifically for you. It covers all these issues and more so that you can have a realistic set of tools to help you create a happier life post-diagnosis.

It includes activities, lessons and a free medical binder you can use to document all your progress and save important information.

Sign up right here with your email and get started (it’s as easy as that!): 7 Days to Happiness Programme

You’ll find that when you use a cane, habits will form, and you’ll learn to be more mobile with your assistive device. This brings us to the next point.

How to Use a Cane Properly

(Left) Me with my cargo pants and backpack. (Right) A friendly squirrel monkey using cane to investigate my backpack

Using a can is simple. But maximising your independence and strength with one requires a few tricks.

I’ve used crutches, canes, wheelchairs, assistive boots and more to keep me mobile over the last 12 years – and I’ve learnt a few things along the way. Here’s what I have to share.

Consider why you’re using the cane

Not all of us will use a cane for the same reason. In fact, its uses vary quite a bit. I know they have with me!

The more you understand why it’s there – the better use you can get out of it.

It’s easier to know precisely when you need it and why you’re using it at that moment. It also may help you find more opportunities where you might not need it.

  • Autoimmune disorders such as Fibromyalgia, RA, and MS that cause widespread pain and muscle weakness will decrease as the range of motion decreases as your joints become fused and inflamed.

    Especially with RA, joints just “lock-up,” eventually making any type of voluntary movement impossible.

    In the early to mid-stages of these conditions, using a cane can help you by taking some of the pressure off your swollen, painful joints.  Even if it doesn’t relieve the pain ­­– it simply makes it possible to function around the pain.

    You might find that activities like hydrotherapy help you improve joint mobility without the need for your cane at that moment.  

  • With a neurological disorder, you might be dealing with a combination nerve pain and impaired balance.

    In this case, you might find it difficult to walk because of the issues around balance more than pain. So you’ll use a cane to decrease your risk of falls.

    The more tired, sore, stressed you are – the more you’re likely to need your cane as your health is compromised more than usual.

  • A cane could also assist with CRPS or a condition with hyper-localised pain in one area by relieving pressure, pain, or further deterioration of the limb. It helps by transferring weight away from that leg/hip/foot/ankle.

    With CRPS in particular, you need to be hyper-aware of how bad your pain is that day before deciding not to use a cane. It requires a bit of introspection and mindful movement.

Make use of equipment

I know it may feel pretty evident at this point that you lose the use of one arm, but bear with me for a second. You can save yourself a lot of frustration by considering the limited use of your arms in advance. For example:

  • Get a smartwatch and AirPods

    You have got no idea the amount of frustration you’ll save yourself when you’re walking down the street with shopping in your only available hand and your cell phone rings.
  • Use clothes with lots of pockets

    My cargo pants have been a staple favourite of mine for years, purely because of all its pockets. I don’t really need to worry about carrying anything small in my hands because my pants can do it for me. Anything from your water bottle to your wallet can be kept safely, and your hand is still free.   

    I have many great fashion tips if you're struggling to choose the right clothing for your disability. You can my best advice here: 15 Food-Proof Fashion Hacks For Chronic Illness
  • Carry a backpack

    This is especially useful as a woman if you’re used to carrying a handbag around. Once again, a backpack will help keep your arms free, so you don’t feel uncomfortable opening a door, giving someone a hug or even trying to sit down.

Preventing injury

After dealing with the nastiest blisters, skin irritations and even weaker legs – I knew there were some things I could improve on when using my cane.

The whole point is to reduce the amount of pressure you’re putting on your legs, hips or lower back without compromising the rest of your body too much.

  • Hold your cane on the side of the body that is least affected (If this applies to your condition) 

    So, if you have one specific side of the body that you have issues with, you’ll want to hold the cane in the opposite hand. E.g., if your right knee is the problem, then you’ll hold your cane in your left hand.

    Using this example, you would then:
  1. Keep your left leg firmly on the ground,
  2. Lift your right leg and the cane that’s in your left hand at the same time,
  3. Place most of the weight on the cane that is opposite your affected knee as you step down.
  4. Take a step with your left foot and repeat.

This will allow you to keep more balanced and strong as you walk than if you held your cane on the affected side of your body.

  • Watch out for blisters

    A few other things you should watch out for include heat rashes and blisters on the hand that’s holding the cane.

    The easiest thing to do here is wear a glove or even use some chalk to help your grip. Just keep in mind that you want to be as stable as possible when you walk, so don’t use any slippery materials.

    If you’re putting too much pressure on your cane because the pain is unbearable and it’s beginning to hurt your hand – it’s time to check in with your doctor about alternative mobility options. A cane might not be suitable for you at this point.
  • See a chiropractor or occupational therapist

    I know you probably already see one, and they treat the areas affected by your chronic condition. But if you start using a cane over a long period, you may want to ask them to talk a look at your back and shoulders too.

    Often, we overextend our trapezius muscle on the side of the body we use to hold our cane. And the deltoid muscle in front of our shoulders (called the anterior deltoid) tightens up.

    It can end up giving you problems with your posture ­– creating even more frequent neck, back and shoulder pain, as well as fatigue, headaches or breathing problems.

Using A Cane Does Not Make You Weak

Using a cane with your chronic illness does not mean you are weak or giving in. It means that you are working alongside your condition using every method there is available.

You are not fighting against your body’s needs – you’re listening with humility and respect.

When you wake up every morning, I know that it’s a battle to look at your body and say, “I love you,” especially if you feel let down by its capabilities.

But needing help shouldn’t change this dialogue.

If you’re struggling to think about your body with love and respect, repeat these three affirmations every morning:

  • I am not fooled by my condition. I know that everyone needs to earn good health at some point. I am not alone. I am not a victim.
  • I am not fooled by my condition. I know that everyone needs to create their own happiness. I am not alone. I am not a victim.
  • I know that I need to look at my body with compassion and love. It cannot heal without these powerful forces.

If you’d like the extended list of affirmations with a beautiful free printable, find it here: 100 Affirmations for Chronic Illness That Really Work

Know that instead of living your whole life in bed, you choose to use something to help you continue living as much of your life as possible.

And believe me, that doesn’t make you weak. It makes you one of the damn strongest people I know.

Marina

Marina Wildt is an experienced health and wellness writer, chronic illness warrior and founder of The Discerning You. In the last 12 years, she has gone from being paralysed in a wheelchair to living a full life alongside her conditions and now she wants to share all the practical advice that she has learnt with you.


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