From Treadmill to WheelMill
Approximately 1.7 million people in the United States use manual wheelchairs. But while some people undergo fit evaluations to find the best wheelchair, many do not have proper training on how to actually use one.
“A lack of evidence-based training programs makes it difficult for therapists to know how to teach someone the best way to push a wheelchair,” says Kerri Morgan, MSOT ‘98, OTR/L, ATP, an instructor in occupational therapy and neurology who is completing a doctorate in movement science related to manual wheelchair propulsion.
The issue is critical because manual wheelchair users often develop chronic upper extremity pain or over-use injuries. Many of them also use their upper extremities for activities of daily living (e.g. dressing, eating, bathing), so injuries or pain from wheelchair propulsion may limit the ability to participate in major life activities. Morgan has teamed up with biomedical engineer Joe Klaesner, PhD, associate professor in the program in physical therapy, to fine tune optimal movement and force with the creation of the world’s first “WheelMill” System (WMS), atreadmill specifically engineered to work with any type of wheelchair and that simulates surfaces such as slanted sidewalks, ramps, tile or thick carpeting.
“It’s computer controlled to simulate the resistance and incline that a manual wheelchair user encounters in real life,” says Klaesner, whose work is funded by a grant from University of Missouri Systems Spinal Cord Injury Research fund.
The design has evolved for the past decade and Morgan says they’re now fine-tuning software to make sure that the resistance generated by the WMS accurately matches that of a wheelchair in a real environment. Morgan also has developed a new training program for therapists to enable them to educate wheelchair users on proper propulsion mechanics.
“We want to prevent injury and minimize the onset of pain to retain a high level of independence through better propulsion mechanics. What we ultimately feel we’ve developed with the WMS is a training device that will help to achieve this.”