With the right equipment, a quadriplegic can make the impossible possible. For example, Dr. House, a C7 quadriplegic, recently climbed 13 miles to the top of Pikes Peak, Colorado for the fifth time - in a wheelchair! (Watch the video.)
The most important thing a quadriplegic can do is to get educated about all of the options available. Become a student of their own body. Stop being a “patient” and become a “partner” in the wheelchair fitting process.
In this article, we provide some thoughts that will hopefully help you in your education about available mobility options for quadriplegics.
All Quadriplegics Are Not Alike
Quadriplegia simply means paralysis of four limbs. Technically speaking, a quadriplegic suffers from a spinal cord injury in their cervical spine (C1-C7). The lower the suffix number the higher the break on the spinal cord, and typically the more serious the loss of function.
In addition to the affected vertebrae, the condition is considered complete or incomplete (and there are different classifications within the incomplete category). The complete classification is the most serious of these classifications and results in no motor or sensory function.
There is a very wide range in degree of disability exists within the category of “quadriplegic”. On the one extreme, an individual might require assistance at all times. On the other extreme, an individual might be able to easily live independently with the right assistive technology.
Considerations for a Quadriplegic Wheelchair
1. Pressure Relief
Paralysis results in the malfunction of the nervous system. This means that loss of feeling is an important symptom of quadriplegia. Loss of feeling takes away one’s ability to sense discomfort.
If you watch someone with full nervous system function sit at their desk, you will see them shift their weight constantly all day long. This is a result of feedback from nerve endings alerting us to the need for pressure relief. We do this to prevent pressure sores from developing on our skin. Imagine what would happen if you one day stopped receiving these alerts - you’d stop shifting your weight as often. This is precisely what happens to quadriplegics.
When considering a quadriplegic wheelchair, it is absolutely critical to understand how to best provide pressure relief. The result of not providing this relief is pressure sores, which create a whole world of unwanted, dangerous, and expensive problems.
Here are 2 ways to address pressure relief:
Invest in a high quality, custom seating system (cushion and backrest) that best supports your body.
Invest in a custom wheelchair frame made to your specific dimensions determined in conjunction with a professional therapist with expertise in fittings.
Attaining optimal mobility is another important consideration for quadriplegics. In the world of wheelchairs, you typically hear about manual wheelchairs and power wheelchairs, each with their own advantages:
Power chairs require minimal effort to operate or travel long distance and can be customized to meet very unique and challenging needs. Manual chairs are small and compact and are easy to transport.
For quadriplegics that retain use of their arms, a power assist wheelchair can be a great option. It automatically adjusts to the surfaces a user is traveling over and delivers added propulsion when resistance is sensed. Users can go further while reducing effort and the number of pushes. The automatic brakes also help the users gain control going downhill.
If a quadriplegic can push, even if it's only with the palm of their hand, they can use a power assist wheelchair.
From a medical standpoint, the Tailwind preserves the shoulder function. Somebody that thinks they need to be in a power chair could actually be in a manual chair. It doesn't take much effort at all to push it across thick carpet, up hills, on grass, etc. It also helps to brake going downhill, so you don't have to worry about going out of control. That's unique to the Tailwind and is a very important, safe component. - Dr. Glen House, MD, MBA
3. Physical Activity
For some quadriplegics, physical activity is simply out of question. But staying as active as possible allows for maximum independence, better emotional and physical health, and ultimately to a better quality of life.
When considering a quadriplegical wheelchair, it's important to determine which option empowers you to maintain your ideal level of physical activity. Here is what Dr. Glen House says about maintaining an active lifestyle as a C7 quad:
The Tailwind Power Assist Wheelchair can not only climb to 14,000 feet: it can get me out in my back yard through the thick grass, or it can get me even further through the trees of the forest where we live in Colorado. I can follow my kids where I can't go in any other situation. I can even go places in the Tailwind that I can’t go in a power wheelchair because it would slip and slide. It gives you that. You can gear down to 1, the lowest level, and be pushing lightly around through a gift shop with trinkets and not knock them over. Then you can turn it up to 9, and you can climb Pike's Peak - all in one chair!
Be Sure to Consider All of Your Options
Never accept the one-size-fits-all solution. Be your own advocate. If you find something you like, pursue it. Call the manufacturer, ask your therapist or dealer about it. There is no reason to settle for anything less than the right technology for you!