Conrad is a 35-year old Iraqi war veteran who suffered bilateral, below-the-knee amputations during his service. Recently, he has had some trouble with self-propelling a manual wheelchair due to another war-related injury to his left shoulder. Despite undergoing several surgeries to repair his shoulder, the pain is too great for him to push the chair sufficiently. He decides to switch over to a power-chair with appropriate chair wheels, specifically a Jazzy since the frame is small enough to maneuver around his home. However, he wishes to use a power chair for outdoor use too, but heard from a friend that Jazzy chairs are complicated to use on outdoor terrain.
Like Conrad, the majority of wheelchair users will have to consider specific chair wheels and installment in order to best navigate their environments. In this article, we will be discussing differences between rear or driving chair wheels (caster wheels not included) combined with how they are aligned on the frame in order to produce self-propulsion over a variety of terrain. This will include wheels for both manual wheelchairs and power chairs.
Let’s look at the following, individual aspects of typical wheels found on manual wheelchairs today
Chair Wheels Tire Material
Although most manual wheelchair chair wheels are made of rubber, the two most common types of tires are pneumatic and puncture-proof.
Pneumatic tires are probably the most commonly used and require inflation.
Puncture-proof is made of a hard rubber or plastic material and is filled with foam, plastic, or rubber.
Depending on where you plan on using your chair, either type of tire could work. For example, if the chair will be mostly used outdoors it would be best to use a puncture-proof wheel that is heavy and knobby to offer decent traction.
Spokes And Wheel Frame
Currently, the two most common type of wheels used on manual wheelchairs include composite mag wheels and high-performance wheels. Mag wheels are generally made from six, heavy nylon/fiberglass spokes which is sturdy enough for average wheelchair users who don’t plan on using their chair for intense sports or activities. High performance wheels are specifically designed to handle rough-and-tumble activity and higher speeds.
Current examples include the SoftWheel which replaces standard spokes with a suspension system, the Spinergy wheel which is a lighter, but tougher frame for sporting essentials and the X-core wheels which includes a 3-spoke system for lighter and durable sporting wheels.
Manual wheelchair chair wheels only come in three different sizes: 22, 24, and 26 unless the user is looking for very specific customizations. The diameter is fit in order to optimize self-propulsion as well as stability of the frame. Individuals who are looking into purchasing a wheelchair for the first time should be measured by a specialist to determine what diameter would be best depending on their body types.
This is also called “wheel camber” in the world of chair wheels language. Wheels where the top is angled in towards the user and the bottom (hitting the ground) is angled outwards is meant to increase the speed of the chair with self-propulsion as well as softening a rough ride. Some chair come with fixed camber while others have camber bars in order to provide several angle placements. Users who have compromised wrists or upper-limb disorders that affect their movement range should consult with a specialist prior to investing in cambered wheels.
This refers to how forward (anterior), rear-ward (posterior), and vertical placement the wheels are placed on the chair. Medola et al. (2014) found that drive wheels that are placed further back on the frame provides the user with more stability, but also limits their hand access to the hand-rims making it more difficult to self-propel. If the wheels are placed too far forward, the opposite occurs (less stability and more efficiency in pushing the chair). The position of the wheels really depends on what the user is looking for and what their perception of stability is like. Vertical placement is how the axles are placed in regards to the seat height. A lower seat increases self-propulsion, but dramatically increases the use of shoulder range which could be a potential for upper-arm injuries.
Now let’s consider power chair wheels. It is expected that the material will be some sort of sturdy rubber tire (pneumatic or puncture-proof).
Specifically, let’s look at how placement of the wheels affects the user;
Front-wheels are designed for outdoor use. The shock is absorbed by the two main wheels and the two, rear caster wheels. The main wheels hit various terrain (snow, mud, gravel, grass, curbs, etc.) before the caster wheels which means that the main wheels drag the rest of the chair over the obstacles efficiently.
Often referred to as mid-wheel technology, wheels placed in the center of the chair offer better maneuverability in tight spaces especially in indoor environments. Mid-wheel chairs typically have four caster wheels, two in front of and two in the back of the main wheels. Unfortunately, mid-wheels also have the likelihood of high-centering or tipping the chair if used on outside surfaces. This is partially due to the first two caster wheels being what hits the obstacles first instead of the main wheels. Because of the placement of the wheels, there is not a ton of shock-absorbance which means the rider feels everything if attempting to scale rougher terrain like gravel and dirt.
Rear-wheels are also designed for outdoor use since the placement creates great shock absorption. The downside is that the front caster wheels hit oncoming obstacles first, which makes it less efficient to navigate outdoor surfaces than front-wheels. On the other hand, rear-wheels sit directly under the captain seat offering more stability to the chair in order to prevent tipping. Wheel placement on a power chair should be left up the user and/or the specialist. Together, they determine what chair wheels placement will most benefit them in their frequently used environmental spaces.
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Medola, F. O., Elui, V.M.C., Santana, C. S., Fortulan, C. A. (2014). Aspects of manual wheelchair configuration affecting mobility: Review. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 26(2): 313-318.