Cerebral palsy is a disorder in which the brain cannot properly control and coordinate the body’s movement. CP is usually caused by damage to the brain during childbirth. Cerebral palsy is the most common childhood motor disability in the U.S.
Not every child with CP needs a wheelchair. In fact, almost 60% of all children with cerebral palsy can walk independently without any equipment. Many of these children were once in a wheelchair but could later ambulate with the chair. Some children with cerebral palsy who cannot walk independently use handheld mobility equipment, and others require wheelchairs.
The good news is that in 2023, there are many different types of wheelchairs available specifically designed to accommodate the unique mobility needs of children with all types of cerebral palsy.
Traditional, manual-powered wheelchairs are inexpensive and easy to transport. They typically feature two small caster wheels in the front and two large wheels in the back with rims for pushing. Manual wheelchairs can be rigid or foldable, and they offer a variety of customizable features. The upside of a manual wheelchair is that the user gets exercise navigating and powering the chair.
Some children with cerebral palsy have limited arm strength or control. So they may not be able to move by themselves in these types of chairs. This makes traditional wheelchairs less effective mobility devices for kids with CP.
Powered electric wheelchairs have the most to offer for children with cerebral palsy. Electric wheelchairs offer various control options that can give almost any child with cerebral palsy the ability to move around independently.
Most electric wheelchairs for CP feature a joystick type of control that enables the user to move the chair in any direction simply by moving the control stick. More advanced operating systems are available for users who cannot use a joystick control, including touchpad controls and even eye gaze controls.
Electric-powered wheelchairs can be equipped with additional features and operative enhancements to benefit children with cerebral palsy. Many of these features are discussed below.
One of the most common wheelchair enhancement features for cerebral palsy users is power tilt or tilt-in-space. Tilt-in-space chairs have special seats that can pivot 30-60 degrees upward with the push of a button (or manually) while keeping the hips and knees at 90-degree angles.
In other words, the user remains in the fixed seated position with their knees bent while the entire chair pivots backward.
Tilting offers several general benefits. It shifts body weight to relieve pressure from specific areas of the body, such as the lower back, which is very important for users who spend all day in their wheelchairs. It also helps improve circulation.
Tilt-in-space chairs provide mobility benefits particularly useful for children with cerebral palsy. With a tilt chair, a child with CP can be moved into a postural position, making them more functional in performing specific tasks.
Children with CP often cannot control spastic muscle responses, frequently triggered by moving the legs out of a seated position. The tilt-in-space avoids this by pivoting the user with the legs in the fixed seating position. Various studies have shown that tilt-in-space chairs benefit children with cerebral palsy.
The main drawbacks of tilt-in-space chairs are that they are large and cumbersome, making them difficult to transport and maneuver. They also seat the user much higher than other chairs, making it harder to fit under tables.
Reclining wheelchairs enable users to open the seat-to-back angle and elevate the legs. The movement is that of a typical reclining easy chair. The reclining feature offers many of the same benefits as tilt-in-space, including relief of pressure, comfort, and improved circulation.
They can also move the user to more functional positions, but not as effectively as a tilt-in-space chair.
One significant problem with reclining chairs, however, is sheering and sliding. When the user reclines back, gravity causes the body to slide downward. This can be very problematic for kids with CP who have problems with spastic muscle control.
Some children with CP might be able to use standing wheelchairs. These types of electric-powered chairs look a lot like a Segway or scooter. They support the user in an upright position with back and head stability. Movement is usually controlled with a joystick on the armrest.
Customized Seating Wheelchairs
These wheelchairs have customized seating and positioning options for maximum comfort and support. They often include features like specialized cushions, backrests, and headrests tailored to the user’s unique needs.
Lightweight and compact, transport wheelchairs are designed for easy transportation and storage. A caregiver typically pushes them and is suitable for short trips or medical appointments.
These wheelchairs are used during rehabilitation to improve mobility, muscle strength, and posture. They may have adjustable features to accommodate changing needs as the individual progresses.
Sports and Recreation Wheelchairs
These wheelchairs are specially designed for adaptive sports and recreational activities. They are lightweight, agile, and equipped with features that enable users to participate in various sports and games.
- More thoughts on measuring and picking the best possible wheelchair for a child with cerebral palsy
- What educational and treatment opportunities do children with cerebral palsy have?
- What is ataxic cerebral palsy?
- What is diplegic cerebral palsy?
- Children with CP sometimes have torticollis or hypertonia or are frequently arching their back.
- Does my child have CP? Signs and symptoms of cerebral palsy (symptoms specific to toddlers)