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Wheelchair Cushion: Selection and Maintenance

Posted by Joe Fleming on May 17th, 2016 

For those who must use a wheelchair for their daily activities, it is imperative to have a comfortable wheelchair cushion. However, beyond comfort, wheelchair cushions must also the necessary weight distribution for the wheelchair user to manage pressure management, proper positioning, balance and stability. Otherwise, the person in the wheelchair may have increased fatigue from trying to manually maintain comfortable balance and seating position, or have difficulty in maneuvering.

Types of Wheelchair Cushions

There are t hree materials from which wheelchair cushions are made from. Each person may have their own personal preferences, but there are medical benefits and limitations to each. 

Foam Cushions

  foam wheelchair cushion

Foam cushions are are the most minimal and basic, often costing the least in comparison to other types. Their cushion is most common single-density firmness, with a contoured base and multiple layers to allow possible adjustments. However, foam technology has improved to include various degrees of memory and densities. Foam cushions are low maintenance and offer a stable seating surface, low to mid positioning, and light weight. The shape of the cushion may also be cut to best fit the user. However, if the person sitting in the wheelchair requires extra pressure relief or more nuanced positioning features, foam cushions will not be able to provide the appropriate settings. Foam also wears out quicker, and may lose its shape easier, requiring more constant replacement.

Gel Cushions

gel wheelchair cushion

Gel cushions are flexible, and therefore offer customize optimal pressure relief by allowing the person’s pressure points to immerse or sink into the gel pack, relieving the wheelchair user from excess pressure. The shape of a gel cushion conforms to the person sitting on it, replacing the natural biological cushion that a user would normally have. The base is contoured, allowing for advanced positioning characteristics due to the manipulatable material. However, a gel cushion is not light-weight, and on average, costs more than foam cushions.

Air Cushions

inflatable wheelchair cushion

Air cushions, as their name would suggest, are filled with air. The firmness of the cushion can be adjusted by relieving air pressure. Because of the malleable material, stability and balance is compromised. However, like gel cushions, air cushions offer improved pressure management, due to areas of excess pressure being allowed to sink into the surface of the cushion. Air cushions most often come in 2” and 4” heights. The 2” size offers more stability whereas the 4” offers maximum pressure relief. These cushions may require more maintenance in monitoring the air pressure, and making sure there are no exterior leaks. They may also be more expensive.

Cushion Selection

Which cushion a wheelchair user selects depends on the activities they may pursue in the wheelchair, as well as their own personal needs. An important task of a wheelchair cushion is to prevent pressure sores, as blood flow is restricted when users are in a constant sitting position. Muscle atrophy may further limit proper blood flow, and therefore the cushion must compliment the user’s medical needs, and selection should be advised by a doctor or expert. If the wheelchair user often moves on rough surfaces, a gel cushion may not be optimal because gel cushions do not absorb impact as well as other materials. If the wheelchair user is often active, they may prefer a lighter cushion.

General Cushion Maintenance

Regardless of the type of cushion chosen, the proper size and height must be chosen to suit the chair and user. The seat cushions size must exactly match the wheelchair seat size. When considering the height of the chair, height of surrounding tables or furniture should also be considered. For example, if the wheelchair user is tall, a shorter cushion may be necessary. If there is chance that the cushion may come in contact with liquids, the user should purchase an incontinence cover to protect it. Most cushions have a lifespan of two to three years; afterwards, replacement may be necessary.

Works Consulted

Karp, Gary. "Selecting the Best Wheelchair Cushion." Life on Wheels. O'Reilly and Associates, n.d.
Web. 17 Dec. 2016.
N/a. "SpinLife's Guide to Seat Cushions." SpineLife. SpinLife, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2016.
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