Walking with Crutches — Advice from a Physical Therapist

A physical therapist helps a patient learn to fit and use crutches after an ankle injury.

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If you have suffered a foot, ankle, knee or hip injury, it is likely that you will need to avoid putting any weight on the injured leg during the initial phase of healing. This is often true whether or not your injury required surgery, and whether or not you are in a cast or using a walking boot or brace.

When facing a prolonged period being off your feet, it is natural to feel anxious about getting through your day-to-day life. Fortunately, crutches can help you keep weight off your injured leg while also allowing you to move around enough to safely perform your daily activities.

Using crutches for the first time

The first time you use crutches, it is likely to feel awkward and you may be unstable. Have a friend or family member close by in these early days as you practice. Most people find it easy to learn how to use walking aides such as crutches and quickly gain confidence and independence. A few simple tips can have you navigating all types of terrain – including stairs – effortlessly in no time.

There are typically three phases of recovery for a foot, ankle, knee or hip injury: total non-weight bearing, partial weight-bearing and return to full weight bearing. Crutches can be beneficial in each of these phases, with slight modifications to how you walk with them.

The videos below offer some general guidance on the most optimal way to fit your crutches and to walk with your crutches based on the phase of recovery you are in.

Video demonstrations for walking with crutches​

Proper crutch fitting

It’s important to ensure a good crutch fit to ensure the ability to avoid or minimize bearing weight on an injured leg. A good fit will also make the experience more comfortable and help you avoid back, neck or shoulder pain. For proper crutch height and position ensure the pads at the top are a couple of finger widths below the armpit. Additionally, with your arms dangling, the crutch handle should align with your wrist.

Non-weight bearing

During this phase, as much as possible, avoid putting weight on the foot of your injured leg anytime you are standing or walking. This is usually the most challenging phase of recovery and rehabilitation, as it presents many physical challenges, especially if you need to navigate up or down stairs.  The non-weight-bearing phase of recovery commonly lasts 4-6 weeks but can be shorter or longer depending on your individual circumstances.

Partial-weight bearing

At a certain point in your recovery, you will be cleared to gradually begin putting part of your weight through your foot again. This stage can still present challenges, and it is advisable to continue using your crutches when standing or walking. This is an important phase of recovery as you can start working toward restoring your normal walking pattern while continuing to protect your injury from excessive movement. This phase typically lasts anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks. 

Return to full-weight bearing

During the final phase of your recovery and rehabilitation, you can return to normal weight bearing while standing and walking. While this phase offers the freedom to leave your crutches behind, many people find that they require continued use for balance support. The last phase of using your crutches will depend on your unique situation, but as you work toward a normal walking pattern and countering any balance issues, having this assistive device available will ensure the safest return to your normal daily activities.

Stairs with crutches

During recovery from a foot, ankle, knee or hip injury, you may find yourself needing to go up or down stairs. If this is something you can’t avoid, here are 5 recommendations we can offer to support your safety.

  • Use a railing whenever possible.
  • Always move your crutch with the injured leg.
  • When going up stairs, step with your uninjured leg first, followed by the injured leg and crutch.
  • When descending stairs, the opposite is true — step with the injured leg and crutch first, followed by the uninjured leg. This is counterintuitive for many, but it is the safest way to descend stairs.
  • Lastly, if you are trying to descend stairs when you are non-weight bearing this requires a decent amount of upper body strength. If you feel unsure, opt to sit and scoot up and down instead.

Crutches can be a valuable tool in helping you navigate your daily life while recovering from a foot, ankle, knee, or hip injury. Whether you’re in the total non-weight-bearing phase, partial weight-bearing phase, or returning to full-weight bearing, crutches can provide the necessary support and stability you need.

If you’re currently in the process of recovering from an injury, don’t hesitate to seek the assistance of a physical therapist, and remember to take advantage of resources like these instructional videos to learn the optimal way to fit your crutches and walk with them based on your specific phase of recovery.

woman walking dog

Optimize your recovery with physical therapy.

At Therapeutic Associates Physical Therapy, through comprehensive evaluations and personalized treatment plans, we provide unmatched care custom designed to get you back to the life you love.

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