From blisters to over-used shoulders, knowledge is your best weapon against injuries related to wheelchair use. To help keep you safe and sound, we’ve prepared a list of common injuries wheelchair users sustain and provided suggestions for how you can avoid falling victim to them.
The glenohumeral joint (shoulder) is the most mobile joint in the human body. Due to this mobility, it’s more vulnerable to injury when overworked. Unfortunately, as the shoulder is the main joint for propelling a device or transferring to/from a wheelchair, it’s a major pain point for many wheelchair users. When the shoulder joint becomes impaired it can greatly reduce your independence and mobility, so it’s important to keep your shoulders fit and flexible — and to reduce unnecessary strain or unnatural usage.
The most common issue wheelchair users face is a rotator cuff tear. Tears are caused by imbalances of the muscles in your shoulder. Doctors recommend strengthening external and internal rotation muscles as well as the adductors to prevent the risk of damage to your rotator cuff.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by swelling in your tendons, which compress your median nerve. Under stress, the median nerve produces tingling, numbness and paresthesia in your thumb, pointer finger, middle finger and palm. This syndrome can also cause so much pain that it affects your ability to grip.
Wheelchair users tend to put inordinate stress on their upper extremities, which increases the prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome. Additionally, wheelchair transfers and propelling one’s chair can create the traumatic events which cause carpal tunnel syndrome. Luckily, treatment for carpal tunnel is pretty easygoing. Doctors usually recommend a brace and anti-inflammatory medicines. However, for a wheelchair user, the loss of independence can have negative effects on your wellbeing.
Some doctors believe proper biomechanics can prevent carpal tunnel, and studies have shown that wearing padded gloves can help. Furthermore, about every medical professional on the planet agrees that approved muscle conditioning will help prevent injury. If you’re starting to feel sensations that match up with carpal tunnel symptoms, visit your doctor for a full diagnosis and treatment plan, which will likely include exercises to increase wrist mobility and flexion.
Blisters, Abrasions and Lacerations
Blisters and abrasions affect around 18% of wheelchair users, which lead to considerable discomfort. Blisters can be caused by the continuous rubbing of your skin against a surface (like the pad of your wheelchair seat), and signs of blisters include: feeling heat in the affected area, pain and/or a burning sensation. Blisters can contain various types of fluids, but remember: never pop them. Abrasions are caused by the skin scraping against any rough surface. Similarly, lacerations are wounds where skin has been torn.
To prevent blisters, apply talcum powder or petroleum jelly to protect your skin from abnormal friction. It’s also never a bad idea to wear gloves to protect your hands from wheels and spokes.
Prevention is the best offense from injury. Take care to exercise and stretch daily to prevent injuries caused by overuse of your wheelchair. As always, ask your doctor for recommendations for specific stretches or exercises that you’re best suited for and seek out medical treatment if you experience any of the symptoms listed above.
For more ways to stay safe and healthy, check out our exercises to increase mobility for wheelchair users.