Learning to use a prosthetic leg

After undergoing a leg amputation, a prosthesis helps you increase your freedom of movement and return to your everyday life. But... as welcome as a prosthetic is, getting fitted for that prosthesis can also be an emotional and exciting experience! After all, how do you learn to use your ‘new’ body part? Learning to walk with a prosthesis offers you considerable freedom and lets you get back to your everyday life. We’re happy to share some tips and exercises with you to make this process a smoother one.

After a leg amputation, your endurance, coordination and strengthen may be reduced considerably. If you are fitted for a prosthetic leg, you will have to learn to walk again. This may be something you are dreading. But it is important to remember to give yourself the time you need! Walking with and using a prosthesis is a whole new skill that needs to be learned. And that takes both time and patience. But it is time well spent because you will be able to get back your freedom before long.

Step by step: learning to walk with a prosthesis

To make the process of learning to walk again as smooth as possible, we have put together a list of steps for you:

1. Essential: a well-designed socket that fits well

A safe, solid and comfortable connection between your residual limb and your prosthesis is important for good control of your prosthesis. It is also important to properly maintain your prosthesis in order to ensure optimal comfort. Clean your socket regularly to prevent irritated skin. Your O&P professional can provide more information on this when fitting you for your prosthesis. 

2. Practicing on the walking bars

When we walk, our body weight is transferred from the one leg to the other. Once you are fitted for a prosthesis and are comfortable wearing it, it is important to learn how to place your weight on your prosthesis. This is an exciting process. Fortunately, you do not have to do it alone. Thanks to a detailed explanation by your physical therapist and lots and lots of practice, you will slowly but surely learn to trust your prosthesis.

When practicing, you will start with walking bars, using both arms as support. After a while, you will only use one arm. Ultimately, you may be able to walk without any support by your upper body.

3. Gait training

Special gait training exercises help you refind your balance and coordination, and learn to walk again. What does gait training entail? It may be ‘simple’ exercises like walking forward, backward and sideways, or it may be exercises that you do sitting or standing, by which you learn to handle different surfaces and obstacles like slopes, stairs and kerbs.

4. Walking independently with a prosthesis

When you first start walking on your own, it is important to use the devices recommended by your therapist or doctor. After all, you do not want to injure yourself by moving too quickly. When you start walking again in everyday situations, it is important to take your time. Make sure that you gradually familiarise yourself and feel comfortable in a new environment. You will undoubtedly encounter numerous challenges, such as steps, thresholds and hills. Your physical therapist will advise you on how to best deal with these.

5. Advanced exercises

Feeling confident about walking? Then you can focus on further developing your skills with the following exercises. At first, make sure you have something next to you to hold on to if necessary.

  • Bouncing a ball: standing and then walking
  • Balancing on one leg
  • Balancing a long stick on your hand
  • Walking on different surfaces, such as carpet, pavement and grass
  • Getting in and out of a car
  • Carrying objects while walking

Practice, practice, practice

Learning to walk again with a prosthetic leg takes considerable time and patience. The most important ingredients for success are trust in yourself and lots of practice. These two basic walking exercises can be safely done at home. Remember to consider the type of prosthesis you have! With most microprocessor-controlled knees (MPK), these exercises are not a problem Do you have a mechanical knee? If so, there is a risk of falling. Always do these exercises under supervision.

1. Balancing briefly on one leg

With this exercise, you stabilise the supporting leg on the amputated side – while strengthening your ‘good’ leg. It is important to do this exercise standing next to a raised surface, such as a dresser or counter. This lets you rest your hands on the surface when necessary. Sit upright with a tensed core and your legs next to each other. Gently push your prosthetic leg to the side into the air. You are now standing on your healthy leg only. Now slowly lower your prosthetic leg until you are standing on both legs again. Repeat the exercise, but this time on the other side, so that you end up standing on your prosthetic leg only.

2. Side stepping

With this exercise, you assume the same basic position as with the first exercise. Only this time, you hold on to the raised surface. Again, push your prosthetic leg gently to the side, so that you are standing on your healthy leg only. Now lower your prosthetic leg directly to the ground so that your legs are somewhat further apart. You then take a step with your healthy leg towards your prosthetic leg. Continue side stepping in this way while holding on to the dresser or counter. After a few steps, switch direction so that you are side stepping towards your starting position. Again, consider your safety and only do this exercise with someone nearby.

Different for every person

Naturally, the exercises that are most suitable for you and that you are able to do are different for every person, situation and new prosthesis. So, always talk to your doctor or physical therapist first. He or she can provide you with advice based on your personal situation. It is also important to give yourself the time you need. Walking with a prosthesis is a completely new skill and it takes time and patience to learn this skill. So, don’t get discouraged! It’s normal to experience sore muscles at first. After all, your body has to adjust to this new way of walking. Start slowly and see how your body responds. Pushing yourself too hard? Slow down the pace a bit. Experiencing pain or serious discomfort? Always talk to your doctor or therapist.