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DON'T LET choosing a walking cane throw you off balance. Picking a cane that's fitted to your body and your needs can provide welcome support and increase your independence.

On the other hand, using an ill-fitting cane may increase your problems.

It's a common mistake to choose a cane that's too long. This pushes one side of your body up, putting strain on your shoulder joint and arm muscles. And a cane that's too short causes you to lean forward, putting extra pressure on nerves in your wrist. Whether too long or too short, a cane that's not fitted properly may throw you off balance, and make you less stable on your feet.

When buying a cane, don't base your decision on looks alone. A distinctive cane may add flair to your appearance, but there are more important factors to consider:

Select the right style. If you plan to use your cane daily, the traditional "candy cane" style (with curved handle) probably isn't your best choice, especially if you have any type of hand disorder. This cane doesn't center your weight over the staff, which puts pressure on your hand.

Instead, consider a swan-neck cane or one with a grip that straddles the pole. Also, a lightweight cane is less of a burden than a heavier one.

Consider length. To determine the proper length, stand erect with your shoes on. Hold your arms at your sides. The length of the cane should equal the distance from the crease in your wrist to the ground.

When you hold your cane while standing still, your elbow should flex 15 to 20 degrees. Remember, if you plan to use the cane alternately with shoe heels of varying heights, make sure you get an adjustable cane. Non-adjustable canes can be cut to fit, but then you must wear shoes of the same heel height.

Get a good grip. A handle with a slightly larger diameter is usually easier to hold for extended periods. Make sure your fingers and thumb don't overlap when you grip the handle. If you have a hand problem, such as arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome, ask your doctor or physical therapist to advise you about grip size.

Check the tip. Your cane should have a removable rubber tip, one to two inches wide, for good traction and safety. Check the tip regularly. Replace it before it wears down and becomes smooth.

For cold climates, you can get an attachable steel spike for times when you may find yourself on a patch of ice.

You'll get the most from your cane if you hold it on the side side opposite your weaker or painful hip, knee or leg. Then move your weaker leg and cane at the same time. This improves your balance and stability, and takes stress off the painful or weaker side.

Once you've obtained a cane that fits correctly and you've used it for a while, decide if it's a help or a hindrance. If you have a permanent disability, your cane may become your long-term companion. If you've recovered from an acute injury, retire your cane.

Tip: If you're on Medicare and your doctor writes a prescription for a cane, Medicare will pay up to about $15 of the cost.

Most health insurance companies also provide coverage. But be careful to ask your physician to write "needed for walking" on the prescription.

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