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Mobility After a Spinal Cord Injury

Topic Overview

Mobility is an important aspect of a spinal cord injury (SCI). The ability to move lets you participate more fully in community life and do the things you would like to do. You are not "confined" to crutches or wheelchairs—they make you independent. Mobility devices can help you get to work, go shopping, and get around outside your home. They may allow you to participate in races, basketball, tennis, and other sports. You can often get around as quickly as anyone else can walking.

Most people with an SCI use a wheelchair at some point. Even if you can get around with crutches, there will probably be times when you need a wheelchair. The two main types of wheelchairs are:

  • Manual wheelchairs. You move a manual wheelchair yourself, and to do so, you need upper body strength. Manual wheelchairs with special designs are often used in sports, such as basketball, tennis, and racing.
  • Power wheelchairs. Power wheelchairs contain a motor, control system, and battery pack that you need to recharge. They are used by people with less upper body strength. They come in different models and are getting more diverse. For example, you can now buy off-road, four-wheel-drive wheelchairs.

You select a wheelchair based on how much movement and feeling you have (your functional level of injury), how much you are able to do, how strong your upper body is, where and how the wheelchair will be used, and its cost. Questions you can ask are:

  • How much upper body strength do I have? Am I strong enough to use a manual wheelchair?
  • Where will the wheelchair be used? Indoors only? Or indoors and outdoors?
  • How often will I use the wheelchair? Occasionally or all the time?
  • Is it easy to travel with? Is it light and easy to take apart?
  • Will my insurance pay for all or some of it? How much will I have to spend on my own?
  • What guarantees or warranties come with the wheelchair?
  • Can it be serviced or repaired locally?

Other types of mobility devices include:

  • Braces, crutches, or walkers. Some people with SCIs have enough strength to use these devices. There are many types available, and your rehab team will help you find the best fit.
  • Scooters and carts that have three or four wheels. These are usually used by people who don't need help getting around all the time. Scooters are usually less expensive than wheelchairs and easier to steer. Scooters and carts can be self-propelled or motorized.

Automobiles

Just because you have an SCI does not mean you cannot drive. Many people with SCIs are able to drive with special modifications to their vehicle. If you feel you can drive, talk to your occupational therapist or case manager. You will probably have to go through a program that evaluates your ability to drive safely. This generally includes an evaluation of your visual and movement skills, reaction time, and hand function.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Nancy Greenwald, MD - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Last Revised February 15, 2013

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