What is a bariatric wheelchair?
A bariatric wheelchair is a wheelchair designed to meet the needs of people who are larger and heavier than an average wheelchair user.
Special features found on a bariatric wheelchair may include:
- Stronger materials and reinforced design
- Wider seat made of heavy duty material
- Multiple adjustments to accommodate a variety of body sizes
- Heavy duty footrests
Bariatric wheelchairs are sometimes referred to as extra wide wheelchairs, heavy duty wheelchairs, or high capacity wheelchairs.
What does “bariatric” mean?
Bariatrics is a branch of medicine focused on treating and studying obesity. Physicians who specialize in bariatrics help patients identify the causes of their obesity and develop treatment programs.
Why Are Bariatric Wheelchairs Needed?
A bariatric wheelchair may be needed in any situation where the weight of a patient makes using a standard wheelchair unsafe or impractical.
Most standard wheelchairs have a weight limit of 250 to 300 pounds. Failure to observe the weight limit can cause serious injury if the frame breaks or a part fails. In these cases, a bariatric wheelchair is necessary for the safety of the user.
Bariatric wheelchairs typically have wider seats than a standard wheelchair, which makes them easier to use and more comfortable for overweight people.
Like a standard wheelchair, bariatric wheelchairs are used after a surgery or medical treatment that limits the patient’s mobility.
A bariatric wheelchairs may also be needed when an overweight person is no longer able to move using their own legs.
Bariatric Wheelchairs Vs. Standard Wheelchairs
There are distinct differences in construction between bariatric wheelchairs and standard wheelchairs.
Standard wheelchairs usually have seats that are usually between 16” and 18” wide. The seats found on bariatric wheelchairs are much wider and range from 20” to 30”.
Bariatric wheelchairs typically have heavy steel frames that are thicker and stronger than the frames found on many standard chairs.
A steel frame provides the strength needed to support heavier users, but it also means the wheelchair itself will be substantially heavier. Bariatric wheelchairs can weigh 20 to 40 pounds more than standard wheelchairs.
Bariatric wheelchairs also have heavy duty seats designed to support more weight.
While most wheelchairs have some degree of adjustability, bariatric wheelchairs often offer numerous adjustment to accommodate users of all shapes and sizes.
Most standard wheelchairs are designed so that 80% of the user’s body weight falls over the rear axle. This makes it easy for someone pushing the wheelchair to move it forward.
The center of body mass of an obese person can be located several inches forward compared to a person of average weight. With this in mind, bariatric wheelchairs have a forward-shifted rear axle to help keep 80% of the user’s body weight over the axle.
The modified location of the rear axle also makes it easier for the patient to push the chair, since reaching the wheels can be difficult if they’re located too far behind the patient’s shoulder.
Bariatric Wheelchair Vs. Bariatric Transport Chair
A bariatric wheelchair and a bariatric transport chair serve the same purpose, but they are propelled in different ways.
A wheelchair is designed to be powered by the person in the chair using their arms.
A transport chair is designed for the person in the chair to be pushed by somebody else.
A transport chair is ideal in situations where a person does not have the strength to move the chair on their own.
Shopping for a Bariatric Wheelchair
The two most important things to look for when shopping for a bariatric wheelchair are weight capacity and seat width.
Weight capacity is the maximum weight a wheelchair can safely support. As long as you ensure the user is below the weight rating of the wheelchair you’ll be fine.
Seat width is pretty straightforward, but you need to be sure to measure the user properly. You can do this by having the user sit down on a hard surface and measuring the widest portion of their body.
If the user is very close to maximum width of a particular wheelchair, it’s probably best to move up to the next size.
For example, if you measure the user’s body at 23.5”, you may want to get a wheelchair with a 26” seat. Even though a 24” seat could work, it’s best to make sure the user has a little extra room.
Will Insurance Pay for a Bariatric Wheelchair?
Unfortunately there isn’t an easy answer to this question. Every insurance plan is different, so the best way to find out if a bariatric wheelchair is covered is to check your policy or speak directly with a representative.
Even if your insurance won’t cover a wheelchair, there are other sources that are worth looking into:
- TEFRA (A Medicaid waiver)
- Federal or state rehabilitation programs
- Veteran’s Administration
- Worker’s compensation
- Credit or financing programs
Bariatric Wheelchair Rental
It may be possible to rent a bariatric wheelchair for the short or long term.
Look for bariatric wheelchairs at rental facilities and at medical supply companies. Some companies will apply rental fees towards the purchase price of the wheelchair.
When you no longer need the chair, some of the companies will buy the wheelchairs back.
You may also be able to buy a wheelchair second hand from someone that no longer needs it.
How to Fit and Adjust a Bariatric Wheelchair
Virtually every part of a wheelchair can be adjusted including:
- Seat height
- Seat depth
- Seat width
- Backrest height
- Armrest height
- Footrest height
The person using a bariatric wheelchair will be most comfortable when it is properly adjusted, so it’s important to take the time to get a good fit.
When the patient is sitting, take a measurement from the floor to the underside of the patient’s thigh to get the proper seat height.
Also while the patient is in a sitting position, take a measurement from the back of the buttocks to within an inch or two of the knee. This will be the seat depth.
Get the seat width by measuring the widest part of the patient while he or she is in a sitting position. Take another measurement from the seat surface to the middle of the shoulder blade. This will give you the backrest height.
Measure the sitting surface to the patient’s bent elbow to get the proper height for the armrests.
If the patient is not able to sit up, it’s acceptable to take measurements while the person is lying down. This isn’t ideal, but it will get you in the ballpark of proper adjustments. You can always make additional adjustments once the patient gets a chance to try out the chair.