Study: Wheelchair Breakdowns Are Increasing Among Consumers with SCI

Consumers with spinal cord injuries (SCI) report their wheelchairs are breaking down more frequently than they used to, according to a new study to be published in American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (AJPM&R).

A research team, headed by Dr. Michael Boninger, University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, surveyed more than 700 consumers with SCI who used wheelchairs at least 40 hours per week, according to a news release on the study. Survey participants reported on wheelchair breakdowns that required repair, and also reported consequences of those equipment breakdowns — such as missing school or work.

The study reports on data from 2006 to 2011. During that period, 53 percent of the consumers experienced at least one wheelchair breakdown in any six-month period. That compares to a 45-percent frequency of wheelchair breakdowns reported by consumers with SCI from 2004 to 2006.

Consumers today also reported more repairs were needed — an average of 1.42 repairs per wheelchair user versus 1.03 repairs in 2004-2006.

Power chairs experienced more breakdowns than manual chairs, with breakdowns in powered seating especially high in number.

The study adds that consumers whose wheelchairs were purchased by Medicare or Medicaid experienced more breakdowns and consequences than consumers whose equipment was purchased by private insurance or other payors, including Veterans Affairs or worker’s compensation.

Consumers belonging to racial or ethnic minorities suffered higher rates of wheelchair breakdowns and were less likely to have backup wheelchairs to use.

“It is possible,” Boninger said, “that this increase in the number of repairs is the result of a decrease in wheelchair quality resulting from changes in reimbursement policies and a lack of enforcement of standards testing. This paper should serve as a call to re-evaluate and revise current policies and standards testing for wheelchair prescription in the United States.”

AJPM&R is the official journal of the Association of Academic Physiatrists.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at