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Buyer's Guide: Selecting the Right Wheelchair

Introduction

Wheelchairs can allow for independent mobility and provide necessary relief for those who may have an injury, illness, or disability. They offer full-body support and long-term comfort that many people can benefit from by using.

Even better, there are a wide variety of wheelchair types and customizations that make it possible to find the best wheelchair for you. But the sheer amount of options can make it hard to determine what exactly is best for you. This guide can help you narrow down your options and make the right choice. 

Selecting the right wheelchair

Do I need a Wheelchair?

For starters, it can be hard for some to decide when they even need a wheelchair. Especially with the common misconception that only those who cannot walk and always require the full-body support should use one. Contrary to this belief, there are many reasons someone might use a wheelchair.

For example, a wheelchair can benefit those:

  • Who have trouble walking or are unable to walk
  • Who are in significant pain while walking 
  • Who tire easily while walking or cannot walk long distances
  • With paralysis or musculoskeletal issues
  • With broken bones or injuries to the legs or feet
  • With significant balance or gait problems
  • With neurological issues

It's also important to note that you don't have to need a wheelchair full-time to use one. Plenty of people are part-time users and only use theirs on 'bad days' or in situations where they have to stand for long periods or walk long distances.

To determine if you should use a wheelchair, take into consideration how much you struggle with day-to-day tasks. Also, consider how much you may be missing out on due to your illness, injury, or disability. If your pain or fatigue makes daily living difficult and keeps you from enjoying or partaking in things you enjoy, you may find a wheelchair helpful.  

Do I need a cane?

What to Consider

There are a variety of factors to keep in mind when getting a new wheelchair, such as your needs, condition, and lifestyle. Be sure to consider the following so that you can find the best wheelchair for you.

Measurements

Measurements

Be sure to consider your body measurements so that every part of the wheelchair you choose, from the seat to the leg rests, is comfortable and safe for you. The "Measuring for Your Wheelchair" section of this guide will explain how to get these essential numbers. 

Weight

Weight

Not all wheelchairs safely support the same amount of weight, so be sure to take your weight and the weight capacity of each chair you're considering into account. You may find that you need a bariatric chair or one made of more heavy-duty materials. 

Frequency of Use

Frequency of Use

Whether you will be a fulltime or part-time wheelchair user can also affect which wheelchair you may choose. Part-time users who always have someone that can propel them when necessary may only need a standard manual chair or a transport chair.

Travel Frequency

How Often You Travel

If you travel often, you might consider purchasing a transport chair in addition to a standard or power wheelchair. This way, you have a lighter, more portable mobility aid when you need it.

Car Type

Car Type

The type of car you will be transported in, such as a van, SUV, or mid-size car, can also impact your choice. You will want a wheelchair that can fit inside either the vehicle or the trunk to take with you to and from different locations.

Outdoor Use

Outdoor Use

The amount you plan on using your wheelchair outdoors can affect the choice you make in materials and wheel type. If you plan on frequently using your wheelchair on different terrains, you may want a chair made with more heavy-duty materials and wheels.

Types of Wheelchairs

With all of these factors in mind, it's time to choose the type of wheelchair that's right for you.

Power vs Manual Wheelchair

One of the first decisions you will likely make is whether a power wheelchair or a manual wheelchair is most suitable for you. This choice is usually decided based on a few of the factors listed above: strength, frequency of use, and car type.

Power wheelchairs

Power Wheelchairs

Power wheelchairs are the best choice for those without much upper body strength. This includes those who have severe paralysis or will use their wheelchair for most or all of the day. Rather than having to propel the chair by the wheels, power wheelchairs are easily controlled using a joystick on the armrest.

However, power wheelchairs are larger and significantly heavier than manual wheelchairs. So, power wheelchair users typically have a larger vehicle, such as a van or SUV, that can fit the chair inside. They are also more expensive and come with the added cost of a lift needed to place the wheelchair inside the car.  

Carex Manual Wheelchair

Manual Wheelchairs

Manual wheelchairs, on the other hand, take significant upper body strength to maneuver, especially if you will be using them for most or all of the day. This characteristic makes them a better choice for part-time users or those with more upper body capabilities.

However, they are much lighter and more compact than power wheelchairs so that they can fit inside the trunk of a smaller vehicle. Those with a smaller vehicle who don't travel often may purchase a manual wheelchair (in addition to a power chair if one is necessary). Doing so helps avoid the hassle and cost of traveling with a power wheelchair.  

Types of Power Wheelchairs

If you travel often, you might consider purchasing a transport chair in addition to a standard or power wheelchair. This way, you have a lighter, more portable mobility aid when you need it.

Standard Power Wheelchair

Standard

  • Most common
  • Maneuvered using a joystick controller
  • Powered by battery and motor
  • Travel further than other power wheelchairs
  • Can be bulky and hard to transport
  • May not accommodate those in need of a smaller, larger, or more heavy-duty chair
Heavy-Duty Power Wheelchair

Heavy-Duty

  • Maneuvered using a joystick controller
  • Powered by battery and a heavy-duty motor
  • Feature reinforced frames and larger seat dimensions
  • Can be even bulkier than a standard chair
Travel Power Wheelchair

Travel

  • Maneuvered using a joystick controller
  • Powered by smaller battery and motor
  • Can be folded or disassembled for easy portability
  • Less comfortable and smaller seat
  • Does not travel as far as a standard wheelchair
  • May not accommodate those in need of a larger or more heavy-duty chair
Standing Power Wheelchair

Standing

  • Allows users to drive the chair in either a sitting or standing position
  • Maneuvered using a joystick controller
  • Reduces pressure from sitting and aids in circulation
  • Can be expensive but also comes in a cheaper, manual option

Types of Manual Wheelchairs

If you've decided a manual wheelchair is most suitable for you, there are many options. Below are the most common, along with their benefits and disadvantages, if any.

Standard Wheelchair

Standard

  • Most common
  • Inexpensive
  • Accommodate basic wheelchair needs
  • Can be self-propelled
  • Fit the average adult
  • May not accommodate those in need of a smaller, larger, or more heavy-duty chair
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PROBASICS K2 WHEELCHAIR WITH FLIP-BACK ARMS AND HEMI-HEIGHT POSITION

Hemi Wheelchairs

  • Seat-to-floor height can be adjusted lower if necessary
  • Can be self-propelled
  • Accommodates users who wish to propel with their feet
  • Accommodates shorter users whose feet may dangle in a standard chair
  • May not help those in need of a smaller, larger, or more heavy-duty chair
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PROBASICS K3 LIGHTWEIGHT WHEELCHAIR WITH FLIP-BACK ARMS AND SEAT EXTENSION

Lightweight/ultralight

  • Lighter than standard chairs
  • Easier to self-propel and maneuver
  • Can be folded or disassembled for easy portability
  • May also be hemi-height adjustable or heavy-duty
  • Reduces strain and accommodates users with less upper body strength
  • May not help those in need of a smaller or larger chair
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Active wheelchair

Active

  • Lightweight and may be aerodynamic
  • Easy to self-propel and maneuver
  • Can be used on a variety of terrains
  • More expensive
  • May not accommodate those in need of a smaller, larger, or more heavy-duty chair 
PROBASICS K7 HEAVY DUTY BARIATRIC EXTRA-WIDE WHEELCHAIR

Bariatric

  • Higher weight capacity
  • Larger seat dimensions
  • May also be hemi-height adjustable
  • Can be more expensive
  • Wider, may not fit through more narrow passageways
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Pediatrick Wheelchair

Pediatric

  • Accommodates children and those in need of a smaller chair
  • Lightweight, easy to self-propel and maneuver
  • Can come in fun, bright designs
  • May also be hemi-height adjustable
Folding Cane

Transport

  • Lighter and more compact
  • Smaller back wheels than a standard wheelchair
  • More portable
  • Can be cheaper
  • Best suited for travel, short trips out of the house, or part-time use
  • Cannot be self-propelled, designed to be propelled by a companion
  • Usually best to have in addition to a standard wheelchair
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PROBASICS RECLINING WHEELCHAIR WITH REMOVABLE ARMS AND ELEVATING LEGRESTS

Reclining

  • Features backrest that safely and comfortably reclines
  • Reclining can reduce pressure and make medical care easier
  • Often features a removable padded headrest for added comfort
  • Can be helpful for those with sleep disorders or who have frequent seizures
  • Can be self-propelled
  • Usually larger and less portable
  • Can be more expensive
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PROBASICS RECLINING WHEELCHAIR WITH REMOVABLE ARMS AND ELEVATING LEGRESTS

Tilt in Space

  • Features seat, back, and leg rests that safely recline together while keeping knees bent
  • Reclining reduces pressure on the back and other areas and aid in respiratory function
  • Reclining can make medical care and feeding easier
  • Can be helpful for those with sleep disorders, spine conditions such as scoliosis, or who have frequent seizures
  • Best for those who are unable to sit upright for extended periods
  • Usually larger and less portable
  • Can be more expensive
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Standing Wheelchair

Standing

  • Allows users to propel the chair in either a sitting or standing position
  • Reduces pressure from sitting and aids in circulation
  • Can be larger and less portable
  • Can be more expensive

Steel vs Aluminum Wheelchairs

When choosing a wheelchair, you will typically choose between a steel frame and an aluminum frame. Each material has its pros and cons, so you will want to know which is most suitable for you. 

Steel Wheelchair

Steel

Steel wheelchairs are cheaper, and most standard manual wheelchair frames are made from it. It is also stronger and able to hold more weight than aluminum, making it an excellent material option for bariatric and heavy-duty wheelchairs. However, steel is heavier than aluminum, so these wheelchairs may be harder to transport.

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Aluminum

Aluminum wheelchairs, on the other hand, have the advantage of being durable yet lightweight. If you are looking for a wheelchair that is easier to maneuver and transport, aluminum is best. However, these wheelchairs can be more expensive than steel and may have a lower weight capacity.

Both materials are durable and make for a functioning, safe wheelchair. Your choice will largely depend on your budget and any accommodations you may need your wheelchair to provide. 

Parts and Accessories

In addition to materials, some wheelchairs may offer part variations and different accessories that you can choose. Each choice will depend on your needs and preferences.

Wheelchair Armrests

Armrests

Desk-Length Armrests: If you will be spending a lot of time at a desk or a table, these are the perfect armrest option. They offer enough support for your elbows while seated in the chair. They make it easier for you to pull in closer to where you're sitting so you can eat or work comfortably.
Full-Length Armrests: If you need more arm support, full-length armrests may be a better option for you. They also provide more support when transferring in and out of the chair.

Both types of armrests can also come in a height-adjustable option to make it easier to ensure your arms are supported at the right height.

They can also be flip-back or removable to make it easier for those who transfer into and out of the chair by sliding off the seat. Flip-back armrests can be particularly useful because they can be easily flipped up for transfers or if you need to get closer to a desk or table. They always stay attached and within reach. 

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Leg Rests

Elevating Leg Rests: These types of leg rests have an infinite amount of positions so that your legs can adjust at an angle that is most comfortable for you. This can be ideal for cast positioning.
Swing-Away Leg Rests: These allow you to rotate the footrests to make it easier to get into and out of the chair. However, with these leg rests, you can only keep your legs in one position with your knees comfortably bent.

Both types of leg rests are typically removable. They can be switched out for the other at any time, if necessary.  

Wheelchair Seat Belt

Seat Belt

Seatbelts can add an extra level of safety for the wheelchair user, preventing you from falling out of the chair and getting hurt. If you do decide to get a seatbelt for your wheelchair, it's essential to find one that is comfortable. The correct length will accommodate you without putting too much pressure on your abdomen. 

Quad Tip Cane

Anti-Tippers

Anti-tippers can be a necessary addition to keep you safe, as they prevent the wheelchair from tipping and falling backward. This feature can be especially helpful in keeping your wheelchair stable when you're going up steps and need to tilt it back.

Anti-tippers come in two types. Wheeled, which allow for the tippers to roll with the chair when going up steps, and rubber-tipped, which best stabilize the wheelchair should it tip backward on a slippery surface. 

Measuring for Your Wheelchair

There are several measurements you will want to keep in mind when choosing a wheelchair. In this section, we'll go through what and how to measure to find the wheelchair with the right:

  • Overall width
  • Seat dimensions
  • Back height
  • Seat to floor height
Overall Wheelchair Width

Overall Width

You will want to make sure that your chosen wheelchair fits through all the necessary hallways and passageways. To do this, measure what you consider to be the most narrow passageway in your most frequented locations, such as your home, school, or workplace.

Ensure that your wheelchair's overall width is less than this measurement by at least an inch so that you can pass through the passageway safely. If an overall width is not listed in the product description, it can typically be determined by adding 8 inches to the wheelchair's seat width. 

Wheelchair Seat Dimensions

Seat Dimensions

You will want your wheelchair's seat to have enough space for you to sit comfortably and safely. It may be easiest to ask a friend or family member to assist you with these measurements.

To find the proper seat width, measure the width of your backside when sitting on a flat surface. You will want to add two inches to this measurement for comfortable space in the chair. To find the proper seat depth, measure your pelvis to the back of your knees when sitting straight and subtract two inches.

Generally, standard wheelchairs come in 16, 18 and 20-inch width options with seat depths between 16 and 18 inches. Bariatric wheelchairs will have larger dimensions, and pediatric wheelchairs will have smaller dimensions for greater accommodation. You will want to find a seat width and depth closest to the measurements of your backside and pelvis to knees. 

Wheelchair back and seat-to-floor height

Back Height

To ensure that you can sit back comfortably in your wheelchair, have a friend or family member measure from the top of your shoulders to your pelvis in a seated position. Most back cushions are available between 16 to 20 inches; you will want to choose one closest to this measurement.

Seat-To-Floor Height

The correct seat to floor height will leave your feet a comfortable distance from the floor without causing them to dangle or drag. To find the right height, measure the length of your lower leg, from the back of your knee to the bottom of your feet.

The seat-to-floor height of your wheelchair should be about two inches more than this measurement. If you plan on self-propelling with your feet, your seat-to-floor height should be slightly lower than this measurement so that it's comfortable to do so. Some wheelchairs offer a dual axle that allows you to adjust the seat-to-floor height between standard and hemi-height to accommodate shorter users or those propelling with their feet.  

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Seating and Positioning

When you sit in a wheelchair for long periods, you may notice yourself becoming uncomfortable and shifting into abnormal postures to alleviate any pain or pressure. However, this can cause further injury. It's vital you always try to sit with the correct posture.

To sit correctly in your wheelchair, sit back in the chair to distribute your weight along your thighs, and buttocks evenly. Sit upright with your shoulders back, not slumping or leaning to one side. Make sure to support your arms and feet with armrests and leg rests.

If you are unable to hold this position comfortably, your wheelchair measurements may not be correct. Be sure to refer back to our "Measuring for Your Wheelchair" section to ensure that this is not the case.

If it isn't the wheelchair's measurements causing the issue, you may need a back or seat cushion. Back and seat cushions can help you stay comfortably seated in this correct position while preventing injury and pressure sores.  

Seat Cushions

Wheelchair cushions add comfort to your chair and help to prevent pressure sores and other adverse side effects of sitting for prolonged periods. There are many different shapes and types to choose. This variety helps ensure that you receive the right around of support and comfort. 

Foam Cushions

These are the most basic and economic cushions available and are best for those who are not at risk of pressure ulcers or skin breakdown. They provide support and structure while also adding comfort to your wheelchair seat.

Gel Cushions
These cushions have a layer of gel chambers that provide relief in high-pressure areas to prevent pressure sores and skin breakdown. They also keep the skin cool while providing the necessary support and comfort.

Air Cushions
These cushions have air cells that equalize your seated position and reduce pressure points to aid in wound therapy and prevent pressure sores. They also maximize blood flow and help keep the skin cool and dry.  

Cushion Style Variations

Standard Cushion

Standard

A typical cushion that is flat on both sides and provides even support.

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Wedge cushion

WEdge

Angled cushion that prevents you from sliding forward or slouching to promote proper posture  

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Pommel Wheelchair Cushion

Pommel

Includes a built-in pommel to provide additional comfort, support appropriate posture, and prevent those at risk from sliding forward. Keeps hips aligned.

Coccyx Seat Cushion

Coccyx

Features a cutout that relieves pressure on the coccyx area.

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Renting vs Buying

Once you've chosen the right wheelchair, cushion, and accessories for your needs, it's time to make one final decision: Should I rent or buy my wheelchair?

Renting is a popular option among wheelchair users, especially those who only need one for a short amount of time. If you only need a wheelchair for a special event or vacation or while recovering from an injury or surgery, renting is likely the better option for you.

It can also be expensive to maintain and repair a wheelchair you own. Renting a wheelchair saves you from this stress, as rental companies usually cover the cost of maintaining it.

Because of this, rental costs can quickly add up and become expensive. If you need a wheelchair for an extended period or will be a full-time user, it's wise to use that money to invest in purchasing one of your own. This way, you own it, can use it whenever you want, and can even sell it and make some money back if the time comes where you no longer need a wheelchair.

One thing full-time users might consider is trying both options. Trying both can be especially helpful for those who are unsure of whether they've found the right wheelchair and don't want to commit to buying one yet. Renting allows you to try out different types and sizes of wheelchairs before purchasing the one that feels best for you.


Needing a wheelchair can be stressful for many reasons, but we hope this guide has helped alleviate some of the stress of finding the right wheelchair for you. If you have any further questions, consult with your doctor, or feel free to speak to a Carex representative.  

About Carex Health Brands

Carex is your one-stop shop for home medical equipment and for products that assist caregivers with providing the best possible support and care for their loved ones. Carex Health Brands has been the branded leader in in-home, self-care medical products for over 35 years. Our goal is to improve the lives of our customers by bring them quality products that bring dignity back to their lives. With our three nationally distributed brands, Carex Health Brands serves national, regional and independent food, drug and mass retailers along with wholesalers, distributors and medical dealers.

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