What is a Medical Wheelchair?

Pharaba Hacker-Witt

A medical wheelchair is a device that allows injured, weak, or ill people to move from place to place without walking. In a very basic sense, it is any chair with wheels, though the most standardized and streamlined version has small wheels in the front, large wheels that can be grasped by the user in the back, and handles to facilitate pushing. Most can also be easily folded for storage or transportation. There are also a number of variations, including chairs with motors, chairs designed for bathing and showering, and those intended for reclining and even standing. Classifying a wheelchair as a “medical wheelchair” can sometimes seem redundant, since this sort of device is almost always designed for medical reasons and is typically only used by people with medical conditions. There are some instances, however, in which a wheelchair may not be deemed a true medical necessity, and as such isn’t always counted as a medical device in a specific situation. The fact of the matter remains, though, that it’s usually considered medical more generally no matter what.

Medical wheelchairs are used by people to help with medical conditions.
Medical wheelchairs are used by people to help with medical conditions.

Assessing Medical Need

Some people may think they need a wheelchair when there's no medical cause for it, making their wheelchair technically non-medical, at least from a certain standpoint. Programs that pay for wheelchairs based on the user's medical need also may determine that a particular person’s use of the device is non-medical even if the user derives some form of health benefit from it. Elderly people who are frail but not necessarily ill may fall into this category, as may people recovering from minor surgeries or procedures who can, technically speaking, move about without assistance.

Medical wheelchairs may be used by the elderly.
Medical wheelchairs may be used by the elderly.

Standard Versions

Standard wheelchairs are the most common, and are easily recognizable my most people. They tend to have large back wheels so the person sitting in the chair can push him or herself, and handles so others can do the pushing, too. There are a huge number of medical reasons for using this sort of device. Temporarily, it can help people who have broken or injured their legs, or who are recovering from surgical procedures. People may use this sort of device more or less for life if they’ve suffered some sort of paralysis, limb loss, or degenerative disease.

A person may choose to use this sort of wheelchair even if he can get around on crutches or on his own in part to reduce the risk of falls. Standard medical wheelchairs come in many forms, including an extra wide version for larger users, and most are very easily transportable.

Motorized Chairs

Power wheelchairs, such as the scooters often seen in grocery stores, are also considered medical wheelchairs under most circumstances. Many elderly people enjoy more freedom by utilizing these devices when they are physically incapable of standing or walking for very long. This type of vehicle allows them to retain their mobility even when alone. Motorized versions often have override systems that allow for manual maneuvering in case of malfunction. They tend to be more difficult to transport, and often require specialized vans with ramp access in order to move them from place to place.

Bathing Chairs

A shower commode wheelchair can be used in the shower and is often made of plastic to prevent rust. Being able to take the chair into the shower helps to prevent unnecessary falls and can be what makes bathing possible at all for people who have mobility-limiting conditions. This type of chair also can be equipped with a bedpan for use if the patient needs to use the restroom. This can be better for a patient who has been bedridden than trying to make the walk to the restroom; it also is more appealing than using a regular bedpan for many people, though it does usually require another person’s assistance for cleaning.

Reclining Options

A reclining wheelchair is sometimes used by people who spend a majority of their time in the chair. If a patient is incapable of moving himself from the chair to a car or a couch, this might be a more freeing option. These chairs tend to have more padding and be comfortable for long durations. Like motorized seats, though, these also tend to be more difficult to pack up and are not as good for travel unless a specialized vehicle is available.

Standing Chairs

People with back problems or tailbone issues may find a wheelchair designed for standing to be the best option. These sorts of “chairs” allow a person to more or less stand on a wheeled platform, secured with a series of restraints. It can be self-propelled, usually with a sort of specialized pedal system, though it usually is a push-style chair. This chair also can be used in psychiatric wards and other settings where a patient might need to be transported but also needs to be controlled through the use of full restraints.

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