Hesperian Health Guides

Evaluating a Child’s Needs for Aids and Procedures

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > Disabled Village Children > Chapter 7: Polio: Infantile Paralysis > Evaluating a Child’s Needs for Aids and Procedures

Step 1: Start by learning what you can through talking with the child and family (see Child’s History). As you do this, watch the child move about. Observe carefully which parts of the body seem strong, and which seem weak. Look for any differences between one side of the body and the other—such as differences in the length or thickness of the legs. Are there any obvious deformities, or joints that do not seem to straighten all the way? If the child walks, what is unusual about the way she does it? Does she dip forward or to one side? Does she help support one leg with her hand? Is one hip lower than the other? Or one shoulder? Does she have a humpback, a swayback, or a sideways curve of the back?

These early observations will help you know what parts of the body you most need to check for strength and range of motion. Often, by watching a child you can begin to get an idea about what kind of aids or assistance may help. For example:

Step 2: This is the physical examination. It should usually include:

  1. Range-of-motion testing, especially where you think there might be contractures. (See “Physical Examination,”, and “Contractures”.)
  2. Muscle testing, especially of muscles that you think may be weak. Also test muscles that need to be strong to make up for weak ones (such as arm and shoulder strength for crutch use).
  3. Check for deformities: contractures; dislocations (hip, knee, foot, shoulder, elbow); difference in leg length; tilt of hips; and curve or abnormal shape of the back.

Step 3: After the physical exam, again observe how the child moves or walks. Try to relate her particular way of moving and walking with your physical findings (such as weakness of certain muscles, contractures, and leg length).

Step 4: Based on your observations and tests, try to figure out what kind of exercises, aids, or assistance might help the child most. Consider the advantages of different possibilities: benefit, cost, comfort, appearance, availability of materials, and whether the child is likely to use the aid you make. Ask the child and parents for their opinions and suggestions.

Step 5: Before making a final brace or aid to fit the child, if possible test to see how well it may work by using a temporary aid or old brace from another child. For example:

If a child’s ankle bends over to the outside like this. . . DVC Ch7 Page 68-1.png . . . a lift on the outer side of the sole like this, may help to keep the foot straighter. DVC Ch7 Page 68-2.png
But before nailing
and glueing in the lift,
quickly make a trial
one of cardboard or
something else and
fasten it temporarily
to the sandal or shoe
with tape or string.
Then have the child

a lift taped to a shoe


Note: For a few children, a lift like this will help. For many it will not.

Ask the child what she thinks.

Step 6: After the child, her parents, and you have decided what kind of brace or aid might work best, take the necessary measurements and make the brace or aid. When making it, once again it is wise to put it together temporarily so that you can make adjustments before you rivet, glue, or nail it into its final form.

DVC Ch7 Page 68-4.jpg
Mari and Chelo making a child's brace

Step 7: Have the child try the brace or aid for a few days to get used to it and to see how well it works. Ask the child and parents if it seems to help. Does it hurt? Are there any problems? How could it be improved? Is there something that might work better? Make what adjustments are necessary. But remember that no brace or aid is likely to meet the needs of a child perfectly. Do the best you can.

Here is a story of how workers in a small village rehabilitation program figured out what kind of aids a child needed. How many of the steps we have just discussed did they follow? Was each step important?


Saul and his family with Mari and Chelo

Saul's mother
Saul's baby

One day a mother from a neighboring village arrived at the village center with her 6-year-old son, Saul. Mari and Chelo, 2 of the village rehabilitation workers, welcomed them warmly. Learning that Saul had polio as a baby, they asked him to walk, and then to run, while they watched carefully. Saul limped a lot and one leg looked thinner and shorter. With each step it bent back at the knee.

“He walks quite well, really,” said Mari. “But he has to ‘lock’ his knee back in order to put weight on it. That knee is going to keep stretching back and some day it will give out.”

“A long-leg brace would protect his knee,” suggested Chelo. “Oh, please, no!” said Saul’s mother. “A year ago we took Saul to the city and the doctors had a big metal brace made for him. It cost so much we are still in debt! Saul hated it! He would always take it off and hide it. We tried and tried to get him to use it, but he wouldn’t.”

Saul throws off his brace

“That’s not surprising,” said Mari. “Often a child who can walk without a brace will refuse to use one—even if he walks better with it. We could make him a long-leg brace out of plastic. It would be much lighter. What do you say, Saul?” Saul began to cry.

“Don’t worry, Saul. Maybe we can do something simpler,” said Mari. “But first let’s examine you, okay?” Saul nodded.

On muscle testing Saul, they found he could not straighten his knee at all. But he had fair strength for bending his knee back ...
Saul tries to bend back his knee and talks
That's as high as I can go.
... and his hip forward ...

Saul bends his hip forward to touch the finger and talks

I touched you!

... and good strength for bending his hip back.

Saul bends his hip backward to touch the finger

Good for you!

Saul stands on one leg and talks

1, 2, 3, 4, 5!
“Okay,” said Saul. “Sounds like fun!”
“With the hip and thigh strength he has, he should almost be able to stand on that leg without the knee bending back,” said Mari. “Saul, let’s see you try it like this. Pretend you’re a stork!” For a moment Saul could do it. “Good!” said Mari. “Every day stand like that and see how high you can count without letting your knee go back. Every day try to beat your old record! Okay?”

“The stork exercises may help,” said Chelo. “But I still think he needs a brace. At least at first.”

DVC Ch7 Page 70-2.png

A long-leg brace might weaken the muscles Saul needs to strengthen.
"We must weigh the advantages against the disadvantages,” said Mari. “A long-leg brace would keep his knee straight. But it could weaken the muscles he needs to strengthen. Since the brace would keep his leg from bending back, he wouldn’t have to use his muscles to do it.

“On the other hand, we might try a short-leg brace that holds his foot at almost a right angle. Then, to step flat he will have to keep his knee nearly straight. It could help him strengthen his behind-the-thigh muscles.”

“Let’s try it!” Everyone agreed, except Saul.

DVC Ch7 Page 70-3.png
plastic brace
Celo brought someone’s old, lower-leg plastic brace and showed it to Saul. “See how it will fit right around your leg. It isn’t heavy at all. Lift it! And no metal joints to get in the way! What do you say? Do you want to try it?"

“I guess so,” said Saul.

When the brace was made, they tested it. Saul said he liked it. At first, when he tried hard, he could walk without bending his knee back. But after a few days, his mother complained that often he would walk, or even stand, with his knee bent way back as before, and his toes in the air, like this.

"WE THOUGHT IT WOULD WORK LIKE THIS..." the leg with the brace is flat on the ground "... BUT IN FACT IT WORKED LIKE THIS." the leg with the brace is bent backward

“I have an idea,” said Chelo. “Why don’t we let the heel stick out behind the shoe. That way, when he steps, his weight will come well forward of the back of his heel. This should help bring his foot down and his knee forward.”

They tried it, and most of the time (especially when he was reminded) Saul walked without letting his knee bend back much.

Heel extended backwards helps prevent back-kneeing.
arrows point at a brace flat on the ground
rounded front of sole to avoid pushing knee back at end of step
At home Saul’s mother encouraged him to do his stork exercises. As his muscles grew stronger, he began to walk without bending his knee far back — even in active play! DVC Ch7 Page 70-7.png

Saul shows off his improving score

See how often I beat my own record!


DVC Ch7 Page 71-1.png

This is often one of the first questions asked by the parents of a disabled child. It is an important question. However, we must help parents realize that other things in life can be more important than walking.

If the child whose legs are severely paralyzed by polio is to walk, generally she will need at least 2 things:

  1. fairly strong shoulders and arms for crutch use
  2. fairly straight legs (hips, knees, and feet). (It is important to correct contractures so that the legs are straight or nearly straight before trying to adapt braces for walking.)

To evaluate a child’s possibility for walking, always test arm and shoulder strength:

Have her try to lift her body weight off the ground with her arms, like this:

DVC Ch7 Page 71-2.png If she can easily lift up and down several limes, she has a GOOD chance of being able to walk using crutches. If her arms and shoulders are so weak she cannot begin to lift herself, her chances for crutch-walking are POOR.

If her shoulder and arm strength is FAIR, and the child can almost lift herself, daily exercise lifting her weight like this may increase strength enough to make crutch use possible.

Having the child lift herself while holding a bar like this will also help strengthen her hands and wrists for crutch use. DVC Ch7 Page 71-3.png

DVC Ch7 Page 71-4.png Pushing herself in a wheelchair or wheelboard (trolley) is apractical way to strengthen shoulders, arms, and hands.

DVC Ch7 Page 71-5.png
If the child cannot lift herself because of weak elbows, put simple splints on her arms to see if she can lift herself with these.
DVC Ch7 Page 71-6.png
If she can lift herself with the elbow splints, maybe she can use crutches that give elbow support.

If she is fat, she should lose weight. This will make walking on weak limbs much easier.

a woman talks to a child

Sorry! No more sweets!

Now check how straight the legs will go.

If the hips, knees, and feet can be placed in fairly straight positions, chances for walking soon with braces are good (if arm strength is good). But if the child has much contracture of the hips, knees, or feet, these will need to be straightened before she will be able to walk.
a woman straightens a child's leg someone helps a child bend their knee
For correction of contractures,
see Chapters 8 and Chapter 59.
Sometimes, if contractures are severe in one leg only, the child can learn to walk on the other leg only, with crutches. But it is best with both legs, whenever
DVC Ch7 Page 71-10.png

After checking arm strength and leg straightness, the next thing to check is the strength in the ankles, knees, and hips. This will help you decide if the child needs braces, and what kind.

A child with a foot that hangs down (foot drop), or flops to one side may be helped by a below-knee brace of plastic or metal.

DVC Ch7 Page 72-1.png Foot drop: he cannot lift his foot
DVC Ch7 Page 72-2.png
Foot flops to one side. DVC Ch7 Page 72-3.png
DVC Ch7 Page 72-4.png DVC Ch7 Page 72-5.png

For foot drop, you can make a brace that lifts the foot with a spring or rubber band.

a brace with a spring and a brace with inner tube
piece of inner tube

The kind of brace you choose will depend on various factors, including cost, available skills and materials, and what seems to work best for the particular child. Advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of braces, and how to make them, are discussed in Chapter 58.

A child with a weak knee may need a long-leg brace of plastic or metal.

arrows point to a leg with weak thigh and lower leg muscles
cannot lift
cannot lift
weak thigh and lower leg muscles
plastic brace
metal brace
Upper-leg braces may be made with or without a knee joint that locks straight for walking and bends for sitting. Different models are discussed in Chapter 58.

Note: Not all children with no strength to straighten the knee need long-leg braces. A child with strong butt muscles may be able to walk without a brace.

strong butt muscles STRONG butt muscles pull the thigh back and keep the knee from bending. DVC Ch7 Page 72-11.png
a child lies down flat and lifts his bent leg back

A child who has FAIR butt strength and a straight knee may be helped enough by a lower-leg brace that pushes the knee back.
arrows point at child with fair butt strength and brace
brace pushes knee back

Slightly downward angle of a stiff brace causes it to push the knee backward when weight bearing.

A child with weak butt muscles may walk with one hand pushing on the weak thigh. DVC Ch7 Page 72-13.png Or he may walk by bending the knee back to ‘lock’ it for weight bearing. DVC Ch7 Page 72-14.png
DVC Ch7 Page 72-15.png
CAUTION! A stiff foot with a moderate tiptoe contracture may help push the knee back, just like a stiff brace. Correcting the contracture may make walking more difficult or impossible, so that a brace is needed where none was needed before. (See Chapter 56.)

If a child has a contracture and cannot walk with his knee straight, correcting the contracture until his knee bends very slightly backward may allow him to walk better.

A child with very weak hip muscles may find his leg flops or twists about too much
with a long-leg brace.

If muscles are weak here the child cannot lift like this
a child with weak hip muscles lies on his side and lifts his leg up
DVC Ch7 Page 73-2.png
or if he cannot turn his leg in and out like this, it may flop and twist with a brace like this a child with a long leg brace and crutches

He may need a brace with a hip band to help stabilize the leg at the hip.

A hip band that sits on the butt often provides better posture than a higher waistband.

joint for sitting (with a lock if necessary

A plastic hip band is less stable but more flexible and allows better stepping in some children.
arrows point at child with brace with hip band
A hip band that passes above the butt often lets the butt stick way out and causes swayback.
arrows point at child with swayback

A child with weak body and back muscles, who cannot hold up her body well, may need long-leg braces attached to a body brace or body jacket.

a child held up at the hip while kneeling
If she has difficulty holding her body up like this ...
DVC Ch7 Page 73-7.png
... she may need a brace with body support.

Note: Often a child at first may need a hip band or body jacket to help stabilize her for walking.
A few weeks or months later she may no longer need it. Removing it may help the child gain
more strength and control. It is important to re-evaluate the child’s needs for bracing periodically.

Take care to use no more bracing than is needed.

DVC Ch7 Page 73-8.png A child whose backbone is becoming seriously curved may benefit from a body brace (or in severe cases, she may need surgery).

If necessary, the body brace can be attached to long-leg braces as shown above.
DVC Ch7 Page 73-9.png

More information on spinal curve can be found in Chapter 20. For information on how to make body braces and jackets, see Chapter 58.

This page was updated:15 Nov 2019