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Walking Frames: Making Life Easier One Step at a Time

Walking frames offer excellent support if you’re living with mobility problems or recovering from injury. They provide a mobile platform which is relatively lightweight and easy to manoeuvre. There are various kinds available, some suitable for use indoors, others for getting out and about.

Commonly called zimmer frames in the UK, these walking aids are available with or without wheels. There are also variations in the hand grips, size and weight bearing capacity.

Here we’ll run through the various kinds of walking frames and factors you should consider before choosing one. First, we’ll deal with standard indoor frames, before coming onto wheeled versions and models suitable for outdoor use. We’ll also mention some of the techniques involved to use them effectively. Essential Aids’ mobility shop has a range of high quality cost efficient walking frames to choose from.

Aluminium frames

Aluminium has become the material of choice for numerous mobility products because of its strength, weight, rigidity and resistance to corrosion. Handily, it also happens to be the most abundant metal found in the earth’s crust!

Standard aluminium walking frames are ones most people are familiar with. They have four legs and an upright frame. There are two plastic hand-grips fitted to the top horizontal tubes of the frame, one on each side.

Steel frames

Steel was once the most commonly used metal for mobility aids but its heavy weight and tendency to rust mean that it has been overtaken by aluminium. It is however, still the stronger option of the two. This lends it to tasks requiring more weight tolerance.

Standard aluminium frames are often not strong enough for obese bariatric invididuals, so heavy-duty steel walking frames may be the answer. They come with the advantages but also the disadvantages of steel, in that they rust and are not as easy to manoeuvre.

Steel rollators for outside use remain popular and we’ll talk about those in a while.

Standard walking frames

The standard walking frame, sometimes known as a ‘pulpit frame’ are mostly for indoor use. They have four legs with rubber or plastic feet (called ‘ferrules’) which contact the floor and reduce the chance of slippage.

As mentioned, modern models are usually made of aluminium tubing. There is usually a horizontal brace around 12 inches above the feet. This provides rigidity to the structure and improves its overall strength.

The height of the frame is adjustable by extending the legs to the desired length. Usually this is achieved with a simple pin-clip mechanism.

Two horizontal handgrips sit on the top of the frame, which tilt slightly towards the user. These are made of plastic or high-density foam. Some models have contoured grips which spread weight evenly and improve comfort.

These grips are recommended for long-term users as they decrease pressure on the hands. They are particularly good for people with arthritis in the hands or fingers.

The technique for using a standard walking frame requires a stop-start action. The frame is picked up, moved forwards and then the user takes a step to catch up with it, while at the same time using it for support.

This requires a certain amount of strength, so walking frames may not be suitable for people who are especially weak or get tired easily.

Narrow walking frames

Before buying a walking frame, it is important to measure its width. If it is for inside the home, you should also take time to measure widths of all internal doorways.

Obstacles like furniture and raised or lowered doorway thresholds could also be factors, potentially impeding the frame’s path.

It is self-evident that walking frames are not suitable for climbing stairs, so that also needs to be taken into consideration.

If the living accommodation is too narrow for a standard frame, you might consider one of Essential Aids ultra narrow walking frames. As the name suggests, these have a smaller profile, allowing them to squeeze through otherwise inaccessible gaps.

The drawback with the narrow frames is that they lose a degree of stability compared to standard versions.

Reciprocal walkers

Reciprocal or ‘reciprocating’ walkers have moving parts which allow them to ‘step’ forward while maintaining support for the user. These walking aids have three distinct sections, linked together by hinges on their vertical tubing.

This allows each side of the walking frame to move independently of the other in a ‘reciprocal action’. The user alternately slides each side of the walker forwards, stepping forwards with the foot on the same side. This produces a supported ‘walking’ motion.

This is distinct from the action achieved by a standard frame, which requires the whole unit to be lifted forwards, before the feet catch up, and repetition of the process to achieve forward movement.

Many reciprocal frames can be locked into a static position if so required. This means they can be used in the same way as a standard frame if it’s the user’s preference.

One of the advantages of the reciprocal design is that it provides support right through the walking process, with the user switching the bulking of their weight from one handle and back to the other.

In practice, some people also find that the moving parts make it easy to manoeuvre the frame through tight gaps.

It should be noted that getting the hang of a reciprocal walking frame requires practice, which can put some people off.

Folding walking frames

Another common feature of the reciprocal walking frame is its ability to fold down. Typically its three sections can be unlocked and collapsed together, making a flatter unit, great for storage or transportation in the boot of a car.

Wheeled walking frames

Walking frames are available which have wheels at the foot of the front legs. These are not swivel caster-style wheels but fixed, rotating in a straight line, meaning the frame needs to be lifted slightly in order to change its direction.

If you have difficulty lifting a standard frame in order to edge it forwards, a wheeled version might be the answer. The walking action is similar, but rather than sliding or lifting the front legs, you simply roll them a few inches in front of you. You then edge your feet forwards to catch them up, using the same technique as with a non-wheeled frame.

Like standard frames, the rear legs are fitted with ferrules and all four legs adjust for length with pin-clip mechanisms.

Forearm frames

Also known as ‘gutter’, ‘high’ or ‘trough’ walking frames, these don’t have the standard hand-grips.

Instead they have two near-horizontal troughs on which the user leans their forearms, gripping a vertical hand-hold at the end furthest from the body.

This means that most body-weight is channeled through the forearms rather than the hands. If you have an injury to a hand or wrist, this can be especially useful.

Arthritis is a common condition which causes pain and weakness in the joints. If it affects the hands, using a conventional walking frame may become difficult. For people in this situation, a forearm frame is often the only option.

The troughs and hand-grips are adjustable, allowing the user to find the most comfortable position to rest their weight and also control the frame’s direction.

Another possibility which works in a similar way is a frame with a horizontal platform rather than separate gutters on which the forearms rest.

Most forearm walkers have wheels, but there are non-wheeled versions available.

High visibility walking frames

The Essential Aids mobility shop has recently added walking frames with bright red paintwork. This creates easy-to-see lines for the user, making them ideal for people with failing eyesight or dementia.

‘Hi-riser’ frame

This is a particularly innovative walking frame which has a curved tubing profile to the sides. This provides a hand-hold on either side at about half the frame’s height, as well as the usual grips on top.

The design makes it practical for someone rising from a sitting to a standing position. This is useful if you’re getting up from bed, an armchair or even the toilet.

The hi-riser walking frame is a versatile mobility aid.

Children’s walking frame

Essential Aids supplies a colourful green walking frame which is much smaller than adult models. Its hand-grips are adjustable from 550 to 650mm from the ground, making it suitable for a child’s use.

Using a walking frame safely

Essential Aids strongly recommends direct advice from a health professional with first-hand knowledge of the user’s condition and physical capabilities. As a mobility shop, we can supply frames but it’s vital you check with a qualified professional to ensure you are suitable for one.

As touched on above, the basic technique of using a walking frame is to lift, slide or wheel it forwards then shuffle or step after it. If you have one leg weaker than the other, always step forward with the weak one first.

When transferring from a sitting to standing position, place the walker directly in front of you. Make sure the four feet are touching the floor and are well balanced.

It is important not to pull or tilt the walker as it might easily topple over. Instead edge forwards and make sure when you do press down on it to raise yourself, you do so with even downward pressure on the hand-grips.

To transfer from standing up to sitting down, maneuvre the walker so that your back is to the chair in which you want to sit.

Where ‘zimmer’ comes from

The word zimmer comes from the name of the original manufacturer of walking frames, a company in Indiana, USA in the 1920s. The name has stuck in the UK especially.

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Sally Madeley-Carr, OT

Sally qualified as an Occupational Therapist in 1996 and is a well-respected professional in the field of rehabilitation equipment and living aids. She has worked in private practice and within the NHS, developing a broad experience with adults and children. Click here for Sally's registration with the Health and Care Professions Council. The HCPC regulates health, physchological and social work professionals in the UK.

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