If your wheelchair seat and back are made of soft material there is one thing you can count on happening- The upholstery will stretch and sag over time.
This is called “hammocking”. It’s easy to spot by looking at your wheelchair from the side. If the seat upholstery is sagging down more than an inch or if your back upholstery has taken on a permanent hunchbacked shape, it’s time to doctor it up.
Hammocked upholstery is not just an eyesore, it’s a potential butt sore or back sore and generally a pain. The sagging seat upholstery radically changes the way that your expensive wheelchair cushion works and lessens its ability to position you properly and protect you from sores. It really screws up the cushion dynamics and your seated position.
Meanwhile back at the back, that wacky back upholstery may cause your back and upper body to be positioned incorrectly creating discomfort, pain, and pressure on bony parts of the spine that ultimately may cause sores. Your sitting tolerance (amount of time you can comfortably spend in your wheelchair) may be cut down radically due to discomfort, which is a real nasty hit on your independence.
Check out the image above. The back is hammocked and deformed from use and no longer supports the trunk in a proper position. The stretched back is allowing the women to be positioned further back in the wheelchair and causing her arms to be positioned tight against the back posts which will likely cause irritation and pain when pushing the wheelchair long distances. For lack of proper support the back is now adding to any positioning or stability problems. A part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
Many wheelchairs come with back and seat upholstery that is adjustable. You can loosen the screws that hold the upholstery onto the frame a little bit and pull the upholstery taught. Then just tighten up the screws again and you’re all set. Some wheelchair back upholstery includes a number of velcro straps that can be adjusted for comfort, to improve positioning, and to get rid of that old age sag.
If the upholstery can not be adjusted or if it is just too far gone then it’s time to replace it. Most fabric back and seat upholstery is fairly easy to replace. If you are going to handle this on your own be sure to order the correct upholstery. Wheelchair upholstery comes in many sizes so you will need to know your chair make and the seat and back dimensions.
This may also be a good time to consider converting from non-adjustable upholstery to adjustable wheelchair upholstery. It’s going to run you a few bucks more but will ultimately save you a good deal of grief and require fewer replacements over the long haul.
Taking it to the next higher level- Back and seat inserts or rigidizers as they are commonly called can do an even better job of positioning you by keeping the wheelchair back and seat in their proper shape. Going even one step further might include swapping your wheelchair’s flexible upholstery for real positioning gear such as an aftermarket rigid back. These come in different shapes and forms. They are rigid and often can be adjusted to a specific user and their physical and functional positioning needs. They offer maximum support and position control with no chance of sagging out.
So remember, every few months roll up to a full length mirror and put the eye out for sagging/hammocking wheelchair upholstery. If you spot it, fix it. You will be the better for it.