Wheelchair Comfort: 12 Ways to Enhance the Experience

Comfort: it’s a pleasant feeling, an ideal state in which we are relaxed and free from pain, a luxury that we strive for but can sometimes forgo in the pursuit of other things. 

Many are happy to trade a few nights in their own bed for the relative discomfort of a tent and sleeping bag, for example, to enjoy “the great outdoors”—fresh air, beautiful scenery, (no Wi-Fi). 

But, if you're one of the 75 million people worldwide who require a wheelchair daily, wheelchair comfort isn't anything less than essential to your ongoing physical and mental well-being. If you're just in a transport wheelchair, this may not be as much of an issue.

A comfortable wheelchair will improve your posture, reducing the stress upon your body, as well as the likelihood of injury or pressure sores, pressure ulcers, or skin breakdown, and encourage you to be more active. 

Unfortunately, while the techy aspect of the industry has advanced exponentially over the last few decades, comfort is still tough to come by, especially for full-time wheelchair users, so you may need to invest in a few wheelchair accessories. 

So, we've been on the look-out for ways to improve your wheelchair experience and enhance your life as a wheelchair user. You can find our twelve top tips below!

For Wheelchair Comfort, Try a Memory Foam Cushion

The first thing that’s going to optimize your wheelchair's comfort is the addition of a cushion, or perhaps cushions. Sitting in one position in any chair for prolonged periods can be more than uncomfortable.

It can cause pressure sores, which, in turn, can lead to skin infections, which aren’t only unpleasant but can be very painful.

Padding your wheelchair with seat cushions can help distribute your weight evenly and, thus, alleviate the pressure and pain on your joints, muscles, and skin. 

There are lots of different cushion types available. Some even have velcro to keep them secure in your chair. But one of the brilliant things about memory foam is that it isn't one size fits all. Instead, it contours itself to your body's exact shape, providing support where you need it most.

Support Your Lumbar Spine 

Supporting your lumbar spine (the lower part of your back that curves inwards) is crucial to the comfort you experience when using a wheelchair. If your lumbar isn’t adequately supported, your back is going to ache all day. 

Even propping a small, rolled-up towel behind you on your wheelchair seat will help to relieve some of that pain and give you back support. For the best results, consider purchasing a specialized cushion. Perhaps one that will maximize your seat's comfort while also providing some much-needed support for your spine?

This particular model is made of gel-infused memory foam, which prevents the foam from breaking down as quickly, and comes with a lifetime replacement guarantee.

Adjust Your Posture 

Good posture is imperative for wheelchair users; it reduces the stress on your body, improves the maneuverability of the chair, and reduces the risk of injury or pressure sores. The better your posture, therefore, the more comfortable you will be. 

As proper posture relies on your entire body being in alignment, ensure your wheelchair fits you well - providing adequate support for every part of your body, from your head down to your feet. 

man in a wheelchair working in the office

Stabilize Your Pelvis

Proper body positioning starts in the pelvis. That means you need to start by making sure that your wheelchair is appropriately supporting and stabilizing you. 

Check your seat is:

  • The correct depth: This ensures you sit all the way back, with your weight supported equally by your thighs and buttocks. 
  • The correct width: The right seat width will keep your pelvis from sliding to one side or twisting, which could potentially damage your skin and spine. 

You'll be amazed at the difference this makes!

Stabilize the “S” Curves of Your Spine

Your spine has three natural curves. We've already talked about the importance of lumbar support. Still, for maximum comfort, make sure everything from your cervical spine down to your coccyx is looked after. 

This means sitting upright, bringing your shoulders back, and taking care not to lean too much to either side. Center your weight as much as you can. 

If you find it a struggle to maintain this position, it's possible the back of your wheelchair isn’t providing you with enough posture support. 

Double-check the seat height and width are correct and make sure the angle is right for you. Additional support may still be required. 

But if you're using a wheelchair cushion, ensure it's the correct ergonomic one and that it's well-maintained (not too flat or losing its shape). This is imperative because the wrong type of cushion will undo the posture support of a good seat. 

Identifying the specific area or areas of your body that need increased support and using a cushion specially designed to bolster it, will increase your comfort.

Recline the Backrest of Your Chair by a Few Degrees

This is only a slight adjustment, but it may be that it helps you feel more comfortable while ensuring all the different parts of your spine stay in alignment.

As we've already suggested, maintaining proper posture will help alleviate things like backache and pressure sores, so ensuring you sit upright is very important. 

However, sitting too straight in your wheelchair can be just as detrimental as slouching. If you lean too far forwards, you’ll be fighting to get your balance right all day. 

Tilting your backrest back by just a few degrees will keep your body aligned and at the right angle without reclining you all the way, eliminating this problem.

Invest in Lateral Side Supports 

If you have lousy torso control and struggle to maintain your balance while sitting, you might consider adding lateral side supports to your wheelchair.

These are rectangular or square-shaped devices that can be mounted to the back posts of your wheelchair and will help to assist you if you lean too far over on the left or the right.

Most commonly used in pairs to support both sides of your body, they can help to support and stabilize your torso and improve balance and posture.

Support Your Feet

Not only do your feet support some of your weight, but they also offer your pelvis extra stability. Insufficient foot support could lead to your body becoming improperly aligned. 

Check that the height of the footplates is correct. This should put your hips and knees at right angles. If you lift your knees much higher than this on the leg rests, you risk pushing yourself too far back in your seat, which may cause damage to your spine. 

You want to ensure your footplates are in the right position too. If they're too far out in front, this will tilt your pelvis, encouraging you to slouch, which risks sustaining pressure damage. 

If, on the other hand, they're tucked in too tightly, it will push your pelvis in the other direction and may put the different parts of your spine out of alignment. 

If your footrests are non-adjustable, take your chair to a repair shop. See whether they can make the necessary alterations to its height and overall comfort.

Cross Your Legs

Sometimes, merely readjusting the way that you sit can make a big difference in how you feel. 

Most wheelchair users agree that crossing your legs is one of the easiest and most effective ways of relieving back pain. This is because the movement redirects the pressure of your body from your lower back. 

Just remember, if you do sit with your legs crossed, switch your legs over every couple of hours to keep pressure sores from forming. 

Support Your Arms 

The position of your arms can very easily pull your shoulders down. Conversely, depending on where you hold them, push your shoulders up - affecting the upper curves of your spine and the angles of your head and neck. 

For good posture, and maximum comfort, you want your shoulders to be level, so you should adjust your armrests until they are at the correct height to create this shape. 

Another effortless way to improve your chair’s level of comfort is to cushion your armrests. Hard materials like plastic tend to wear against your skin after a while.

So, the extra padding will feel much better, especially if you use the armrests to transfer or reposition yourself during the day.

Centralize Your Head 

Your head should remain upright and centered, chin tilted slightly down - stable enough so you can look in different directions. If your crown falls too far forward, backward, or over to one side, this can disrupt your spine's alignment and cause discomfort. 

If you're unable to maintain a central head position even when the rest of your body's stabilized, consider acquiring additional neck and/or head supports

Avoid Uncomfortable Clothing

This may seem obvious advice for anybody—ditch the skinny jeans, throw your too-tight dresses away—but when you spend lots of time in your chair, you don’t want clothes 'digging in'. Likewise, you don't want trailing sleeves getting tangled in your wheels. 

If you find that the knots stick into your back, maybe stay away from tops and dresses that belt or tie behind you; and be very careful not to wear too many bulky layers. This will hinder your maneuverability and may throw you a little off balance. 

If you catch a cold easily, layer up, and look into finding clothes that are cozy and warm but may be made of a thinner material. 

Try Some Simple Stretches

elderly woman stretching

Sitting down for long periods can cause backaches, joint discomfort, and muscle tension. Performing stretches may help to relieve these symptoms. The benefits of stretching for wheelchair users are well- and widely recognized.

They include: 

  • Increased flexibility
  • Better range of motion
  • Improved circulation
  • Better posture
  • Stress relief
  • Greater coordination
  • Energy boots
  • Reduced muscle tension

We have found a few gentle stretches, which you might like to try. They are all aimed at reducing pain in the neck, shoulders, and all the different parts of your back. 

But please remember to talk to your doctor first about the suitability of the exercises you would like to take up, before making a start. This will help to reduce the risk of injury.

Here Are Some Examples

Hold your left elbow with your right hand and gently pull it behind your head until you can feel a stretch in your shoulder or the back of your upper arm. Repeat with your left hand on your right elbow to stretch the other side.

Raise your arms above your head with your palms facing upwards. Stretch your arms up high, push them slightly back, and feel the pull in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.

Weave your fingers together with your palms facing outwards and your arms held out at shoulder height in front of you. Push your hands and arms forward until they're straight at the elbow. This will stretch your shoulders, mid-upper back, arms, hands, and wrists.

Bend forward to stretch your neck and spine. Find a comfortable position and hold between one and two minutes. To sit up, put your hands on your thighs, and push your upper body upright again.

Lift your shoulders up to meet your ears and hold them there for approximately five seconds. Then relax completely. Let them drop back into their natural position.

Repeating this several times will help to relieve any tension or stiffness you may feel in your shoulders or your neck.

Are You Sitting Comfortably? 

We certainly hope so!

If, after reading this, you think you could enhance your wheelchair comfort, why not try a couple of these tricks and let us know how you’re getting on?

They’re simple measures, small adjustments, but they could make a massive difference to your levels of comfort. 

For additional support, we also have a wide range of cushions available, to help stabilize your head and neck, and the different regions of your spine. Our cushions can also have a water-resistant cushion cover; some feature machine washable breathable upholstery as well.

Our products have a unique design to comply with orthopedic recommendations. Our memory foam is heat responsive and will mold itself to your form. It also comes with a lifetime replacement warranty. 

Get in touch today, and you could make every day a comfortable one.

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