Wheelchair Seat Cushions

Wheelchair seat cushions have come a long way over the years and with the many options that are now available it can be a bit overwhelming when choosing the right one for you.  Since we all have different lifestyles, daily activities and demands there are different requirements needed when making the right choice.  When it comes to providing the best comfort and support, what works for one person might not for another. 

wheelchair seat cushion

There are some pretty amazing cushions that will provide months or years of excellent cushioning and stability while there are some that will break down and lose their padding in as little as a few weeks.  It's not always a matter of you get what you pay for but as a general rule you can expect better and prolonged performance with a higher quality padded cushion versus a more thrifty option. 

If a seat cushion is important to you because you spend several hours seated every day or you have an elevated health concern, it is worth taking a bit of time to get educated about the different types of wheelchair seat cushions on the market.  While a gel cushion might be ideal for a person that experiences pressure sores it might not be ideal for an individual that requires extra postural support. 

In addition to your specific demands you may be limited by budget, physical ability or how much time you want to spend maintaining your cushion.  There are some cushions that require constant adjustment of air pressure and are difficult to clean while others require almost no maintenance at all.  We'll take a look at the 6 main types of cushions below including foam, gel, air, honeycomb, hybrid or dynamic. 



How to Choose the Best Wheelchair Cushion

How do you choose the best wheelchair seat cushion?  The answer to that question is there is no one best cushion for everyone although there are some very technologically advanced cushions for individuals that require them.  If you require a basic seat pad there are also many great options available that are affordably priced. 

The first thing you should do is speak with your doctor or trusted health care provider about what options you should be considering as well as to identify any health concerns.  Your healthcare provider will take a look at your lifestyle, overall health and may recommend a complete physical exam.  You should have a good idea of what type of wheelchair seat cushion would be best for your needs and we'll tell you more about them to make it even easier. 

Another option to consider is visiting a specialist in wheelchair seating and pressure mapping technology (PMT) especially if you have a history of developing pressure ulcers or skin breakdown.  Anyone with impaired sensation is at risk of circulatory issues that could cause trauma to the skin and tissue beneath the skin. 

A pressure map is a tool for determining pressure distribution.  It's designed for wheelchair seating and mattress surfaces but can be used for sports equipment, shower chairs, toilet seats and more.  A thin mat is placed on the surface and subsequently displays a computerized pressure reading of the patient with varying colors and intensity. 

It is estimated that in excess of 12 billion dollars is spent every year in North America to treat pressure sores and related conditions caused by prolonged seating while using inadequate cushioning.  In addition to speaking with your health care provider and undergoing pressure mapping tests there are some important aspects to keep in mind when choosing the best wheelchair seat cushion.  

  • Temperature control
  • Moisture control
  • Friction
  • Maintenance
  • Life expectancy and Warranty
  • Flammability
  • Fail safe
  • Infection control
  • Pressure redistribution

If you would like more detailed and technical information about wheelchair seat cushions we recommend visiting the National Pressure Ulcer Advisory Panel (NPUAP) website or contacting them directly.  They are committed to pressure ulcer prevention and treatment, education, research and spreading the word to everyone affected.  


Types of Wheelchair Seat Cushions

There are a number of different types of wheelchair seat cushions and each has their advantages and disadvantages.  A certain type of cushion will be great for one person but could potentially be harmful for another.  An example would be if you are physically active and mildly impaired versus having limited or no physical movement at all.  

The requirements for each individual will vary and we'll go over what each type of cushion has to offer as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each style so you can choose the best wheelchair cushion for you. 

  1. Foam 
  2. Gel
  3. Air
  4. Honeycomb
  5. Hybrid
  6. Alternating Pressure


1.  Foam Wheelchair Cushions

A foam wheelchair seat cushion is the most basic of all the types of wheelchair cushions available today.  If your needs are basic and you are looking for a lightweight and low maintenance option, you might find that a foam padded cushion is right for you.  The polyfoam or memory foam used in most models is high density and meets rigorous quality standards so it won't crack or crumble over time.

They are great if you are looking for decent support for your back or tailbone with the added benefit of being easy to maneuver and portable.  They can be easily transferred to your car or regular chair as needed or used as a back up to a higher quality cushion. 

Advantages:

  • Affordable
  • Lightweight
  • Versatile
  • Low maintenance

Disadvantages:

  • Limited pressure relief
  • Limited comfort 
  • Limited stability
foam wheelchair cushion

Foam wheelchair cushions are basic and the construction is very simple.  This leads to it being a very affordable option if your needs are met with this type of cushion.  If you are looking for something more advanced or lasts longer be sure to continue reading about the other types out there. 


2.  Gel Wheelchair Cushions

A gel wheelchair cushion may not be the best wheelchair cushion for preventing pressure sores but for some individuals they are more than adequate. The often consist of a foam shell with a gel insert sealed on the inside for two layers of comfort and stability. The gel acts to evenly distribute your weight evenly as long as the gel is thick enough to support the required weight.

The gel does a great job at creating a stable base with advanced positioning characteristics.  It can be effective at relieving pressure points and distributing the pressure to a larger surface area.  The gel pocket adds weight to the cushion so if you have weight restrictions or mobility issues this might not be the right wheelchair seat cushion for you. 

Advantages:

  • Pressure point distribution
  • Adequate positioning
  • Stable surface
  • Low maintenance
  • Gel provides cooling 

Disadvantages:

  • Heavy 
  • Moderate cost
  • Susceptible to ruptures and leaks
  • Gel pockets may need to be kneaded occasionally to redistribute the liquid
gel wheelchair cushion

If you are looking for a moderately priced wheelchair seat cushion that will provide decent support and above average pressure relief you will be happy with a gel cushion.  The often have a contoured base that ensures proper positioning above the gel layer that also acts to moderate temperature.  This cooling wheelchair cushion is adequate for some but if you require additional stability continue reading below. 


3.  Air Wheelchair Cushions

In recent years there have been tremendous advances in the realm of air wheelchair cushions.  The need for better weight distribution and increased pressure relief lead to the development of air technology in seat cushions.  In a wheelchair air cushion there are varying numbers of cells or sacks that hold air at a desired amount determined by the weight and requirements of the user.  The air can be adjusted with a pump in addition to removing or adding the cells themselves for custom comfort. 

The pressure relief is ideal for anyone that suffers or has suffered in the past from pressure sores, hemorrhoids or related health issues.  The air acts by distributing the weight of the pressure points evenly which will help prevent circulatory issues in some users.  

It's important to note that air wheelchair seat cushions aren't as good at providing stability and positioning compared to foam or gel cushions.  If you have issues related to orthopaedic coccyx, tailbone or sciatica pain you may need to consider a gel or hybrid combination cushion. 

Advantages:

  • Adjustable air cells
  • Excellent weight distribution
  • Lightweight
  • Washable

Disadvantages:

  • Requires manual pumping of air
  • Not recommended for advanced positioning
  • Less stability than gel, foam or hybrid
  • Moderate cost
wheelchair air cushion

An air wheelchair seat cushion is an overall great cushion if positioning and stability are not your main concern.  The adjustable cells make this cushion an excellent option for individuals that have had past issues with pressure related sores and ulcers.  The trade offs are worth it for some but you may require a hybrid or alternating air pressure cushion if your needs aren't met with this style of cushion. 


4.  Honeycomb Wheelchair Cushion

A honeycomb wheelchair seat cushion is self explanatory in design because it mimics the natural formation of a honeycomb.  The design lends itself to being very stable and able to withstand extended periods of pressure.  The support and comfort that this style of cushion provides makes it a consideration for some individuals. 

The noticeable advantages with the honeycomb design is that it allows for increased comfort while still providing adequate support.  In addition to the design you will notice the cushion stays cool with the added avenues for air to circulate.  The cushion is very durable and is both machine washable and dryer safe. 

Advantages:

  • Excellent option for some users where other types have failed
  • Easy to customize shape
  • Stays cooler than other cushions
  • Extremely durable

Disadvantages:

  • Moderate cost
  • Average positioning capabilities
  • Average weight distribution
honeycomb wheelchair cushion

The honeycomb or waffle design cushion is a great choice for users with varying health requirements.  It's worth serious consideration if you just can't find a cushion that feels right and stands up to hours of use.  The durability and comfort make this a great option overall if positioning or weight distribution aren't major concerns. 


5.  Hybrid Wheelchair Cushions

A hybrid wheelchair seat cushion is one of the most advanced and high performing cushions on the market today.  The design and function is based on years of testing and  feedback from individuals with increased needs including; pressure reduction, postural stability, skeletal alignment, harmful movement reduction and pain prevention. 

Any individual that spends multiple hours in a wheelchair or sitting in any position may find this type of cushion very helpful.  The contoured foam base, air cells and moisture control cover are just a few of the features you will find in a hybrid wheelchair cushion.

The design allows for optimal immersion and displacement of both the ischial tuberosities and greater trochanters.  This means that the pelvis area experiences pressure distribution with increased blood flow while providing skin and soft tissue protection.

Advantages:

  • Excellent pressure distribution for pressure ulcer prevention
  • Ideal for individuals with impaired sensation
  • Very stable
  • Allows for stable transfers
  • Ideal for pelvic correction
  • Suitable for weights up to 500 lbs

Disadvantages:

  • Can be costly
hybrid wheelchair cushion

A hybrid cushion offers the best of all the options that are out there in one package and available for a very reasonable price considering the functional remedy it provides.  If you need a cushion that delivers the absolute best you most likely won't be disappointed with this style of cushion.  


6.  Alternating Air Pressure Cushion Systems

An alternating air pressure cushion system is arguably the best wheelchair cushion for preventing pressure sores and ulcers and may be the only option that works for individuals that are unable to move and carry out pressure relieving movements during the day.  This dynamic wheelchair cushion provides constant movement that promotes circulation while providing comfort and support.  

The dynamic air cushion consists of several inflatable bladders similar to a basic air cushion with the addition of a microprocessor that controls inflating and deflating of air every 4 minutes throughout the day.  A portable battery unit supplies power to the cushion that can last in excess of a hundred hours before needing a recharge that allows for continuous varying pressure points. 

The cost for this level of wheelchair seat cushion is somewhat higher that other types especially if you require a custom wheelchair cushion design.  If you are an individual that requires this advanced technology it can be absolutely worth it. 

Advantages:

  • Automatic alternating air pressure 
  • Extremely comfortable
  • Long battery life
  • Easy to wash 
  • Easy to operate
  • Durable 

Disadvantages:

  • Cost
  • Battery needs recharging
alternating pressure cushion system

The alternating air pressure cushion system is equipped with a on/off power switch that is located on the side of the cushion and easily accessible for the user.  There is a built in alarm that warns of a low battery so you can be sure to recharge the unit without interruption. 

Overall this type of wheelchair seat cushion is the absolute best when it comes to advanced cushioning.  It combines the technology and benefits of air and foam and it all comes together to provide a cool, comfortable, medically sound cushion that has made the lives of countless wheelchair users a lot better.  If you have experienced pressure sores and the flap surgeries combined with the pain and discomfort, you may find that an alternating air pressure cushion is a life changer. 


Wheelchair Cushion Maintenance

Every type and style of cushion has a different level of maintenance required.  A simple foam cushion will require an occasional cleaning with regular use regardless of incontinence.  The majority of wheelchair seat cushions are sold with a waterproof and washable cover that can be cleaned as necessary.

With the more advanced cushions you will find that maintenance includes things like constantly adding and releasing air or recharging batteries.  It's something to consider when purchasing a cushion if you are someone that doesn't like being bothered with ongoing maintenance. 

As a consumer there is an expectation of quality and as a general rule the more a cushion costs the longer the warranty period.  If you experience premature breakdown or a defect in workmanship you should be able to return or exchange for a product that is good working order but it will depend on where you purchased the wheelchair seat cushion.  


Wheelchair Cushion Tips and Advice

  • Always speak with a certified health care professional to discuss things like; lifestyle, demands and requirements
  • You may want to consider receiving a physical exam that will include; overall health, postural assessment, body symmetry, balance and coordination, upper and lower extremity function and cognition
  • Always measure the size of cushion required to ensure a proper fit both on the seat and height restrictions
  • Always use an incontinence cover if there is a risk of the cushion being exposed to fluids (often included when purchasing a cushion)
  • Inspect the cushion regularly for worn out and damaged materials
  • Ensure air cells are properly inflated if necessary
  • Replace your wheelchair seat cushion when recommended by the manufacturer (usually every 2-3 years)


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