Crutches have come a long way from their earliest designs to the comfortable, lightweight models we see today. Their purpose remains as pertinent now as it was when they were first used hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. If you have an injury to one of your legs or feet, you need to reduce the weight the injury bears as you move around. This is where crutches come in.
The earliest forms of wooden crutches took the shape of simple long ‘T-Shaped’ walking sticks. The cross-bar of the ‘T’ would fit into the armpit of the user. This channeled the user’s weight through the armpits, shoulders and upper body, rather than through the injured limb.
The problem with this design was mainly one of balance. If someone’s weight was too far forward or too far back, it was easy to lose balance and fall over. The design of crutches therefore evolved to use a ‘V’ shape towards the top of the crutch, in order to combat this.
The ‘V’ shape resulted from splitting the wood and separating it as required. The two prongs of the ‘V’ required bracing at the top by the horizontal section fitting under the user’s arm. This meant that weight was more evenly distributed downwards, giving greater stability.
Another shorter horizontal brace towards the narrowest section of the ‘V’ would create a natural hand hold at about waist height.
This style of crutch is still in use today and known as an ‘Axilla’ crutch. While rarely made of wood, it still uses the excellent weight distributing properties of the ‘V’ shaped design.
It remained the most popular style of crutch until midway through the 20th Century. It was at that stage when people tried to find a design which provided less discomfort to the user.
The first modern ‘forearm crutches’ were first seen in the 1950s. As the name would suggest, with this design the user’s weight transfers mainly through the forearms. This reduces stress on the hands and under the arms.
This design also allows for greater adjustability. Both the lower shaft and the upper shaft can be set to the desired length. This makes these crutches suitable for people of various heights. They are now the most common crutches used around the world. The NHS in the UK prescribes the used of hundreds of thousands of this type of crutch every year.
Commonly known as 'elbow crutches' and made from aluminium, they feature a plastic cuff at the height of the top shaft, which wraps around the top of the forearm. A lower hand-grip sticks out horizontally just below waist height.
Padding for Crutches
A persistent problem with forearm crutches is that the longer you use them, the more pain they can cause to the user’s hands. Narrow handles, typically made of plastic, can cut into the hand with repeated use.
While the earliest crutches had no padding at all, some early wooden versions had leather pouches filled with horse hair. Built-in plastic filled with foam padding is now common, both for the handles and the under-arm weight-bearing parts. Crutches’ accessories like removable foam pads are also popular.
Another innovation is the development of ‘ergonomic’ handles. These have a specially designed surfaces which do not dig in to the hands. These wide, contoured handles spread weight across the palms, significantly increasing comfort.
These handles are particularly useful for those using crutches for prolonged periods of time.
Ferrules for Crutches
Early wooden models were prone to accidents caused by the foot of the crutch slipping on the ground. With the invention of new materials like rubber and plastic, special feet now fit to the bottom of the shafts, providing high friction and grip.
Other crutches’ accessories include metal spikes which fit to the bottom of the shaft, perfect for slippery, icy conditions.